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Man Launches Attack on Pat Kenny; English Language

Well, the whole point of Frontline was to offer a more realistic and “grounded” discussion of current affairs, where anything could happen. So – in a way – the three-minute rant that Kenny was subjected to last night seems to be almost a proof of concept: this is no-holds-barred television, not choreographed or airbrushed. The rant seems to have split public opinion (at least from listening to Newstalk this morning), but I think we’ll all avoiding the real elephant in the room: if you’re going to hijack the spotlight on a current affairs show, at least make your point in a way that isn’t simply mashing up a handful of words (“hypocritical”, “600,000″, “eleven hours”, “credibility”, “pontificating”) in a variety of permutations for three minutes.

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Quite literally on the front line...

I am, of course, kidding. But only barely. In fairness to him, his points are valid and worthy of discussion. Our TV presenters are overpaid. Though I would question the logic that well-paid people shouldn’t be able to comment on social welfare. By that logic the heckler shouldn’t have been commenting on Kenny’s salary unless he was earning the same amount. And if he was he had no place to comment on social welfare, right? That’s like suggesting Irish people can’t have an opinion on US foreign policy, because we aren’t conducting it. Or that police officers shouldn’t comment on crimes unless they’ve committed them themselves. It’s nonsense to suggest that debate and discussion is irrelevent unless people are in the circumstances that they are discussing.

But, I’m not going to bore you with me response to the rant itself. Other people will do it in their own way. And the debate over whether he has a point, or if that was an appropriate way to raise his points, will rage on. What shocked me on listening to the rant was how ridiculously blunt it was. This man wasn’t just taking a (metaphorical) sledgehammer to Kenny, but to the English language as a whole.

I’m not asking for Shakespeare here. I just want a logical, rational and – if possible – witty heckle. Is that too much to ask? If they ever make a film about the recession, they’re going to struggle for “the great speech” scene. That bit when Michael Collins demands of his audience “who will take my place?” or in Into The Storm where Brendan Gleeson delivers a stirring rendition of Churchill’s “we will fight them on the beaches” speech. Neither of those speeches are overly elegant. They are simplistic. They weren’t intended for debate or deconstruction – though they stand up to it – they were intended for the common people, not academics. They were meant for the same audience that that this gentleman was attempting to reach.

I remember that The Guardian ran a “Great Speeches” series earlier in the year – they should still be on-line here. Basically they published a little pamphlet with an extract from one of the speeches which shaped the 20th century. I remember reading each one and thinking “wow”. In particular Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” or JFK’s “ask not…”. I can only imagine people crowding around radios to hear these addresses. And we know how deeply they inspired.

I mention these in passing, for I concede the heckler was not attempting to make a speech – though three minutes is a rather long heckle. They serve as an example of the dying art of oratory and rhetoric. But even the witticisms were sharper back then. You can produce a short book of witty barbs from Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill. Even delivering a sharp deconstruction of an individual – undoubtedly attempted last night – was done a hint of finessé. Take the admonishing of Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy in 1988:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Part of me wonders if media and the way which we consume media is responsible for this trend. In an interconnected world, everything gets smaller. Newspapers seldom print whole speeches these days, so they are typically anchored around vacuous sound bytes. News channels are so busy rushing to get to the celebrity gossip that we get an entire political address condensed down to a word – arguably the greatest orator of our times (though, to echo above I’d suggest he may be good, but he’s “no Jack Kennedy” or even Ronald Reagan) has his speeches condensed down to single ambiguous words/concepts like “hope” and “change”. No instantly recognisable quotes like “I have a dream…” or “ask not what your country can do for you”. It should be noted that it was arguably this soundbyte-fixation which led to the rush to war back in 2003, with the focus on individual words and snippets (“axis of evil”, for example) rather than statements or arguments.

Or maybe it’s just part of the backlash against what’s seen as “an intellectual elite”, though I think the term is rubbish and inapplicable here. Maybe if those speeches contained words like “abligurition” or “antidisestablishmentarianism”, but they generally don’t. They are delivered in spoken English and were aimed at the masses, not the intellectuals or academics. However, it seems that the bar on public debate and discourse has been consistently lowered over the past two decades – Katie “Jordan” Price is a best selling author, for example (and yes, I’ve read a few pages of her second “auto”biography). We no longer value the ability to communicate in a clear or articulate manner – we see that as a snobbish luxury.

The problem arguably works at the other end as well. Politicians give stuffy speeches because they are afraid of giving concrete statements or articulating sentiments which may be controversial. So instead we get waffle. It’s easy to understand the subconscious rejection of practiced and considered oratory when the people who should arguably be advancing it more than any others simply find a way to say nothing in as many words as possible.

One of the problems of the recession – and I think of it every time I hear a comparison made to The Great Depression – is that we have no defining speech, in the way that Roosevelt seemed to literally tie the entire American nation together with his inaugural address. We have no one moment when a world leader said something which perfectly summed up the moment or expressed the public mood succinctly. You might make the case that the yelling and abusive tirade that we heard last night represents such a moment, but I don’t think that public sentiment is so blunt and crude that it can be summed up by a rant where the speaker trips over himself. Or maybe it can.

Maybe our decreasing attention span has meant that the language best suited to expressing our collective thoughts and feelings isn’t the graceful tongue of oratory, but the angry and bitter ramblings of a man fixated on the word “pontificate”. Maybe I’m the only person who finds it sad that so few people have noticed that the crudeness of this rant that has been the triggering mechanism for an admittedly important discussion (and, hence, establishes the tone of it). Who can really blame anyone for starting a discussion in that tone when we are used to the droning of authority figures. At least the delivery of the attack was passionate, right? I remember when dignity and passion weren’t mutually exclusive content.

Or maybe I’m just out of touch.

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One Response

  1. a mate just sent me the link for this – great tv

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