One of the predominant elements of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States was the ways in which the American press underestimated the appeal that Donald J. Trump had, first among Republican voters in the primaries and then among American voters in the general election. National polling had the Democratic nominee, leading Trump by a significant enough percentage for the media to assume that Clinton would end up winning the election. Despite winning the popular vote, though, she failed to carry several states that had voted Democrat for more than three decades, and those electoral votes gave the victory to Trump. Throughout the process, the press reported about Mr. Trump and his followers as little more than nationalistic troglodytes; after his win, it was New York Times columnist David Brooks who referred to the event “as the political shock of our lives” (Hanchett, web). He went on to say that the press must “owe some respect to the electorate and the people who voted [for] him” (Hanchett, web), because the splitting of the nation into “children of light, children of darkness, where us college-enlightened people, educated, enlightened people are looking down at those primitive hordes.that condescension is what fueled this thing in the first place” (Hanchett, web). If a longtime columnist for one of the nation’s most esteemed newspapers is willing to admit the degree to which condescension took place during this election, that suggests a more widespread problem through which the media comes to view itself as better, smarter, more keen in insight than its audience. It is a similar attitude toward the hoi polloi that comes forth in Tom Leonard’s “Unrelated Incidents #3,” in which the poet utilizes structure, diction and dialect to communicate the casual nature of the condescension that the media shows toward its audience.
The structure of the poem resembles that of a news ticker, with no more than a dozen characters, or three words, in each line. The poem only occasionally brings its sentences to a halt, and the only capital letters appear in line 7, when the speaker refers to the BBC. The effect of this structure is to give the poem a tone that drones on and on without any real pause, and the purpose of this tone is to show the ubiquitous nature of news coverage, which in the cable age runs on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The fact that this particular broadcast happens to report the six o’clock evening news, of course, is a bit of a throwback to the time when news only appeared on television a few hours a day, and many people gathered around the television to watch the news together. The fact that the speaker repeats himself several times throughout this particular structure suggests that the news often has little new to say, but the demands of constant broadcasting mean that news channels often have to repeat themselves, over and over, adding runners to the top and bottom of the screen to keep the same series of headlines running across, drawing in audience attention while providing constant updates. The fact that no news appears in this poem, but the anchor instead talks himself could emphasize the self-referentiality of so much of news broadcasting, in which talking heads pull one another up on screen to go back and forth having the same conversations about the same issues, ad infinitum.
The word choice at work in the poem also points toward the tone of condescension that ripples out of the poem. The speaker addresses the audience as “yoo scruff” (Leonard, web). The purpose of the word “scruff” is to show the low opinion that the speaker has of the audience. While the literal definition of “scruff” has to do with that thicker area of skin where it is possible to pick up a small dog, the figurative definition here has to do with the low intellectual (and, perhaps by extension, socioeconomic) class of people who watch the news. The speaker refers to the audience as “scruff” multiple times to underscore this condescension. The speaker also mentions that the audience should “belt up” at the start of the news (Leonard, web). The purpose of this is to suggest that the audience somehow lacks the fortitude (intellectual, digestive or otherwise) to deal with what will be coming through the television in just a few minutes. This phrase also suggest condescension, as from a person who is used to the tough news ahead might say to someone who might not be expected to be able to handle it. This brings the poem to an end with an emphasis of that same superiority that has marked the speaker’s language from the very beginning.
The dialect in this poem throws the attitude of the speaker into high relief. When one listens to a British accent on television, as an American, the differences in the voices will generally be quite audible. However, when dialogue is written in dialect, the purpose of this is often to show the backwardness of the speaker rather than that of the listener. One example of this occurs in the writings of Mark Twain, in which slaves and other blacks often talk in dialect rather than having their dialogue rendered in standard English. The effect of this is to show the stark difference between the way whites and blacks talked in that time period.
In this case, though, the effect (at least apparently) seems to be reversed, as it is the person who considers himself superior to the audience whose speech is rendered in dialect. Such non-standard spellings as “thi” (for “the”), “yoo” (for “you”) and “thingk” (for think”) show the distinct sounds that come with a British accent, but the distortion of standard spelling here also shows the distorted view that the speaker has of the audience. The assumption that the speaker makes about the audience’s low intellectual capacities appears to have motivated his rendition of his own speech in phonetic terms rather than in standard terms, perhaps (at least ostensibly) to aid comprehension but also to aid comprehension in the galactically stupid (at least in the mind of the speaker). Imagine how this speaker might talk to the audience if he were standing before them in person, dramatically emphasizing his pronunciation of every word in a way that would eventually come across as grotesque. This, of course, is the effect that condescension finally produces, making the speaker look silly and the audience feel embarrassed, but primarily for themselves rather than the speaker.
One would hope that the media have learned an important lesson from the 2016 election and will put a stop to their condescending ways. The attitude that the speaker has in this poem is one that has long marked the mass media, as those who report the news feel that they have some sort of intellectual leverage over the masses that view and listen to their reporting. Only when that condescension goes away will news once again become a significant event in the life of the public, an event that they can trust.
Hanchett, Ian. “Brooks” Trump Win ‘Political Shock of our Lives,” Fueled by
‘Condescension’ towards ‘Primitive Hordes.” Breitbart 12 November 2016. Web. 31 January 2017.
Leonard, Tom. “Unrelated Incidents #3.” Canvas n.d. Web. 31 January 2017.