Intelligence Squared is a privately-funded outfit staging debates in London. You can get a sample of the kinds of topics they debate from their home page.
Free-market capitalism is so 20th century
The threat to our civil liberties from an overmighty state has been much exaggerated
Everything a man does he does to get laid
It is time to lift sanctions against Burma
Atheism is the new fundamentalism
… … …
Pretty much anything, in fact.
Well, yesterday they debated the motion: “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” Speakers for the motion were John Onaiyekan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, and Ann Widdecombe, a Tory Member of Parliament and Catholic convert. Speaking against were actor/writer/gadfly Stephen Fry (Jeeves, General Melchett) and, yes, Christopher Hitchens.
Onaiyekan and Widdecombe got their keisters kicked. Daily Telegraph reporter Andrew Brown, a Catholic himself, tells the story here.
As Brown points out, the defeat of the motion was highly predictable. The two arguing against it were seasoned public performers, though of different kinds. An archbishop and an MP are also public performers, but not of the kind with long and deep training in thinking on their feet. (Members of Parliament are better at this than your average congresscritter, to be sure; but the House of Commons is not what it once was, and there are plenty of dull drones in there.) As Brown says:
The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers.
He goes on to wish …
… that there still existed a great Catholic apologist like Chesterton or Belloc, someone who was not only brave and prepared to square up to the Hitch, but was his intellectual equal. Surely there is someone today who could do that?
I’m not sure about Belloc, but I don’t think Chesterton was a very good speaker. He was a good writer, but that’s a different skill set, though a great many people seem not to know this. (Nabokov: “I think like a philosopher; I write like a great novelist; I speak like a child” … & of course Dr. Johnson’s observation in the Rambler.) Someone in the comment thread suggests Robert George, whom I have never seen in debate. I have seen Michael Novak, debating with Heather Mac Donald. I’d been told by Catholic friends that Novak was one of their best minds. Perhaps he is, but he was a poor debater on that occasion. Sample: On the point about religious societies being better behaved than irreligious ones, Heather asked “What about Japan? They’re irreligious, but it’s a very orderly place.” Novak: “Oh, I think the Japanese are very religious …” Uh-huh. (On another occasion, in an exchange on NRO, I asked Novak how there could be any evidence for a human female having been impregnated by an invisible spirit. He, apparently trying for mockery: “John Derbyshire does not believe the Mother of God.” Uh ……. huh.)
In any case, Brown’s account of the event left me feeling more sympathetic to the defenders of the motion than the subject matter would have led me to predict. The mismatch of presentation skills is so big, I wonder if there wasn’t an element of set-up about it, though even if there was, I suppose the defenders have only themselves to blame for accepting the deal.
The reason this caught my attention is that I’ve been doing some public speaking myself recently. I’m pretty hopeless at it; but of course when your publisher tells you to go out and do X, Y, and Z to promote your book, you go and do them. I’ll draw the line somewhere this side of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel … but not very far this side.
There’s a sample coming up on TV this Sunday, a televised event where I do Q&A on my book with Alan Colmes. It was terrifically decent of Alan to do the thing. It paid nothing, and he had to come all the way out from Manhattan to Long Island in the rush hour for it. He’s really a very good guy. Still, sitting down for the Q&A, the thought going through my head was something like: “OK, here’s Alan, seasoned TV performer/debater/defender-of-his-faith (i.e. multi-culti liberalism), and here’s me, a retired and uncourtly scholar, dragged blinking from his garret into the daylight. This will be lions & Christians …” Friends who were present tell me I didn’t do too badly, but of course, driving home, I thought of all the points I should have made if only I’d been quick-thinking enough. I guess Abp. Onaiyekan and the Right Hon. Ms. Widdecombe were similarly afflicted last night.