I expect that Bertrand Russell is the only person in history to have given public lectures to both TS Eliot (in lectures given at Harvard University) and Mao Tse-Tung (in a lecture series given in China). With youtube and the web, we are in danger of forgetting how special an occasion a public speech can be. And so I decided to list the people whose public lectures I have heard. I’ve not included lecturers and teachers whose courses I attended, the most influential (upon me) I have previously listed here, nor talks given at conferences or in academic seminars.
Kenneth Arrow (2000), Michael Atiyah (2008, 2013), PK van der Byl (1985), James Callaghan (1980), Noam Chomsky (2003), Thomas Clayton (2012), Joan Coxsedge (1979), Don Dunstan (c. 1977), Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Leszek Gasieniec (2004), Leslie Goldberg (2009), Joe Gqabi (1981), Tim Harford (2011), Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), Wiebe van der Hoek (2003), Anahid Kassabian (2009), Michael Kearns (2011), David Kilcullen (2013), Hans Kung (c. 1985), Kgosa Linchwe II Kgafela (1983), Bill Mansfield (1976-1980, several times), Robert May (2011, twice), Mobutu Sese Seko (1981, at gunpoint), Moshoeshoe II (1982), Robert Mugabe (1981-7, numerous times), Ralph Nader (c. 1977), Robert Oakeshott (c. 1985), Christos Papadimitriou (2009), Joseph Rotblat (2002), Rory Stewart (2009), Oliver Tambo (1987), Edgar Tekere (1981), Rene Thom (1979), John Tukey (c. 1979), Moshe Vardi (2010), Gough Whitlam (1975-8, several times), Gerry Wilkes (1975), Elizabeth II Windsor (1980), Michael Wooldridge (2003), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).
In this list are two Nobelistas (Arrow/Economics and Rotblat/Peace), two Fields Medallists (Atiyah, Thom) and several politicians. Joseph Rotblat, although then in his 90s, stood for an hour and spoke compellingly without notes of the early history of the atomic bomb. On the list are three monarchs: Linchwe II, Kgosi (Paramount Chief) of the Bakgatla in Botswana, King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho, and Queen Elizabeth II, of Great Britain et al. At the time I heard Moshoeshoe, his prior attempts to meddle in Lesotho’s politics (including forming his own political party and having his own shadow cabinet) had led the (election-losing-but-power-retaining) government of Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan to send him into exile, and only allow him back into the country on condition that he severely limit his public outings. His one chance each year to speak unfettered was at the annual graduation ceremony of the National University of Lesotho. Notoriously, he would take full advantage of this opportunity, speaking for hours, mostly in Sesotho, and he did this on the one occasion I heard him. Some pleasure was gained in watching PM Jonathan, sitting on the graduation stage alongside him, squirm as his government’s policies were denounced by the head of state. Although not invited, I also once attended a ceremony at which Queen Elizabeth II, as Australian Head of State, gave a speech (on Australian democracy), so I have included her name in this list. Bob Hawke I heard give his maiden speech as an MP in the Australian Commonwealth House of Representatives in 1980, a speech I witnessed from the public gallery. Contrary to both custom and to subsequent newspaper reports, his speech was interrupted by heckling from the Government (ie, Liberal and National Parties) benches; it is the custom in Westminster Parliaments that maiden speeches should be heard in silence, but Hawke arrived in Parliament with enemies pre-made and of long standing.
Of the people I have listed, the speakers who most impressed me as orators were Mugabe, Stewart, Whitlam and A. Young; the speakers who most impressed me as intellects were Fuller, Stewart and Whitlam. Robert Mugabe’s wily, strategic intelligence and jesuitical reasoning were evident in many of his speeches, which were invariably impressive and solidly argued, and presented with superb control of the audience, in idioms, tones and registers appropriate for the audience and the occasion. Mugabe did once employ some of Zimbabwe’s best young intellects as personal advisors (eg, Charles Tazvishaya aka Lovemore Mawisa, Elizabeth Austen), but I’m sure these speeches were primarily his own work. Perhaps more than any other modern culture, maShona culture stresses metaphor, parable, allusion, and indirection in communication, and Mugabe was a master of these registers also. British MP Rory Stewart spoke without notes in entire paragraphs, with nary a pause, a stumble, or even any utterance that was not a valid English word. Gough Whitlam was always erudite and witty, with a clear appreciation of the power of his own oratory, and with use of classical tropes, for example, mixing long, complex sentences with short ones effectively, and presenting ideas in threes, as Barack Obama often does.
The speakers who least impressed me were Callaghan and Chomsky. Callaghan, giving an address to an Australian Labor Party fund-raising luncheon in Canberra, a year or so after his election defeat in 1979, spoke to an audience who had each paid a significant amount to hear him (AUD 50, if I recall correctly). Despite this, he said barely 100 words, along these lines: “You Australians have a great country here! Whatever you do, don’t ruin it with socialism! I’m sure you don’t want to hear my opinions, so let me mingle with you, table-by-table.” These words were spoken notwithstanding that he knew that we had each paid good money precisely in order to hear his opinions. Callaghan, former British Prime Minister, Privy Counsellor, and newly a Lord of the Realm, then stepped off the platform, went straight to the the official table, and stayed there the remainder of the lunch. It would have been nice to have heard a speech with an argument or two, or even a reflective anecdote, but I suppose ex-Prime Ministers have no one to write their speeches for them. If ever there was a demonstration of the difference in the modern British Labour Party between the great prior expectations created before an election and the enormous vapidness of the delivery which ensues in execution after election, this was it: We didn’t hear about Callaghan’s time in government; instead we got to experience the same style of disappointment that British Labour voters experienced with his time in government.
Although speaking for 75 minutes rather than 5, Chomsky also presented no arguments. Talking on the broad theme of the vile wickedness of the USA, he instead gave a series of haiku-like statements on topic after topic, mostly examples of evil actions or intentions of varous US administrations, all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant. These topics were not discussed in any discernible order. After some time of this topic-flitting, I noticed the lack of continuity and the absence of any apparent order, and so I began to count the number of successive statements on each topic. I never got past 5 successive statements on the same topic, although I did notice the same topics appeared and re-appeared several times in the course of the talk, subtly restated (not merely repeated), like old patterns coming back into view in a kaleidoscope. In music theory terms, the form was something like: A-B-C-D-A-E-D-F-G-H-C-A-H-C-I-J-K-B-L-E-. . . . Most of the audience seemed to approve of Chomsky’s talk, so he was certainly not unwise in adopting the structure he did. Indeed, perhaps this was evidence of sophisticated efficiency in his rhetorical-targeting: If you already believe that the USA is the source of all evil in the modern world, without a single mitigating feature, then you don’t need to hear any arguments demonstrating or supporting this belief; and if you don’t already believe this, then you don’t normally attend public lectures given by Noam Chomsky.
I saw PK van der Byl give an address at an election rally in Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe in the election campaign of 1985. Pieter van der Byle, aka PK, had been a Minister in the Smith Government which declared UDI in 1965, and ended his Rhodesian cabinet career as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1979. In 1985, he was a candidate for the non-black-reserved seat of Mount Pleasant, which surrounded the University of Zimbabwe. It was odd that he chose to contest this seat, as it was surely the most liberal of the non-black-reserved seats, and PK lost the election heavily to Chris Anderson, a white defector from the Rhodesia Front (RF) who had become a Minister in the ZANU-PF government.. (Indeed, in a statistical analysis I did after that election, I found that the vote for each candidate of the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe – the party formerly known as the Rhodesia Front, and still led by Ian Smith – in each of the 20 non-black constituencies was roughly proportional to the distance of the constituency from Mount Pleasant.) PK spoke floridly and pompously, almost as if he was a caricature of himself, with a campaign message aimed at elderly white voters who remembered the massacre of nuns in the Belgian Congo by black liberation soldiers in 1960 as if it were yesterday. The Belgian Congo, as I recall, figured prominently in his campaign speech, and, despite its (then) independence as Zaire being 25 years previously, he never once called the country anything other than the Belgian Congo. The fact that the Belgians left few miles of paved roads in what became Zaire was given as a reason to support white settler colonialism, since the Rhodesians had paved many hundreds of more miles of road in their utopian white settlement on the highveld. Never have I seen an election campaign speech less appropriate to the actual problems of the country or the society in which it was presented. But the audience, who were mostly of retirement age, and entirely white, lapped it up.
In contrast to PK’s sad memories of Zaire, I happened once to arrive on a flight at Lusaka airport and found my departure for the city blocked by the imminent arrival of Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko, on a state visit to Zambia. Everyone inside the airport terminal was herded, at gunpoint, onto the tarmac to wave, cheer and ululate as his eminence deplaned. We listened as he spoke to the crowd about the brotherly love he and all Zairis had for Zambians, a little in English but mostly in French. As a rare white person in the crowd, I was presented to him later (those damn guns in the back again). I don’t recall much of his oratory. At the time, I thought him a greedy, dictatorial, kleptocratic, nepotistic, murderous, lily-livered thug, and did not realize he was, in addition to all these fine qualities, a paid agent of CIA. Who could have known? How difficult it is to judge people accurately only on what they do in public?