Last week’s trifecta of tacky behavior –Joe Wilson, in a historic first, heckling the President before a formal address to Congress, Serena Williams screaming expletives and threats at a line-judge at match point at the US Open, and a drunk Kanye West grabbing the mike from winner Taylor Swift at the MTV VMAs—was a strangely aligned set of events that have underlined what many have suspected about social civility in the US: it is rapidly withering away.
We all seem to be in a state of denial about it. This week the media was all over each one of these stories, and doing a lot of hand-wringing, calling in the psychologists like Dr. Phil and etiquette experts like Leticia Baldridge and Miss Manners. Our 24-hour news cycles and our craven obsession with sensationalism feeds into whatever CNN or MSNBC or any of the gossip rags or websites gives us. We’re supposed to feel better when Jane Velez-Mitchell, in a roundtable discussion on Headline News about Kanye West the day after the incident with Swift, attributes his outrageously uncouth behavior to his alleged alcoholism. He was taking swigs from a bottle of Hennessey all night –of course! He has an excuse. Larry King’s roundtables, which are as chaotic and unstructured as his meandering questions, are the product not of King’s actual desire to find out the truth. They are hastily gathered by 20-something producers who have no other motive than to get the most soundbites during his telecast. Whatever the problem is, there is no exposition or thoughtful set of possible solutions.
Let’s think about this for a moment. How does our society react to these kinds of events when the same outlets we use to gather news –i.e., the talk shows, chirpy cable news anchors, celebrity websites—are not only watering down or distorting what the problem is. There is actually something much more insidious: they are the problem. We have become a passive culture of absorption. We are ciphers each and every day. As Americans we feel fairly content and occupied with out own lives that don’t really participate in it in any meaningful way. That is to say that we don’t engage in ways that make us more thoughtful or more informed. We actually think we are informed enough, but the reality is that it’s all superficial.
Few people know the intricacies of the current health care legislation, the “public option”, the compromise proposed by Sen. Max Baucus (who?), the stimulus package, etc. because the majority of Americans prefer to parrot what they think they’ve heard. It is no coincidence that we have never had access to so much information and technology in our history. But we are no more educated than before. The “birther” movement, the crowds who were in DC last weekend with signs saying Obama should “go back to Africa”, the whole Tea Party crowd —all of it has sprung out of an increasingly ignorance for common sense and for what is rational and acceptable.
This isn’t citizens uprising because they feel their constitutional rights are being trampled on. Much of it is sinister because of its cynical motives; much of it is orchestrated because those organizers know that those in the “press” (writ large now, to include bloggers and You Tube) will cover it incessantly. And the more outrageous the better. There will be an instant turn-around on You Tube. Nancy Grace won’t wait to sink her sizeable teeth into it.
How have we let this all so get out of control? One explanation is that Americans have become too comfortable in their own surroundings and daily lives. We have a culture of excessive consumption that says “All of this is mine for me to enjoy” –be it all the vices that we know about, but also the vices of selfishness and ownership. It’s not just the material goods that we covet. We also want to be doing something 24 hours a day because we feel that we are missing something if we don’t check our e-mail, speak loudly on our cellphones to no one in particular, yell at our kids, storm through drive-thru windows, race through grocery aisles and pick up the ready-prepared foods, and all in the name of getting what’s ours. And we still complain that we don’t have time for anything. How can we? If we fill our times idly with things that fundamentally don’t matter to our own health or emotional and spiritual well-being, then what are we becoming now or in the near future.
It’s easy to place the blame on technology.
Who hasn’t seen the petulant teenager at the dinner table texting her friends whom she has just seen at school, and in the process ignoring her parents’ asking her how her day was at school? That’s now old. Who gets together at the dinner table anyways? Now we calmly sit back and accept somehow that teenage boys and girls are “sexting” each other –sending pictures of their naked bodies—because 1) everyone does it; 2) they want to get attention; 3) boys are collecting them to post on the Internet and ruin a girl’s reputation; 4) girls have deep-seated self-esteem issues, and so on. And oh yeah, this kind of problem is probably more widespread than you think. Hey, parents! See? You really have been in the dark, all this technology and what not. But are they really? Weren’t today’s parents hooking up for sex in chat rooms on AOL (ugh –dial-up speeds!) back in the 90s? How can parents be so clueless if in fact they have passed on these same habits of being disconnected to each other to their own broods?
This culture has also lost its own authority or, in the parlance, of its own social groups, role-models. We simply are losing institutions or figures in our lives because they mean less and less to us. We convince ourselves that the present is what matters and we will use whatever tool we have – a GPS, a Blackberry, our Tweets, an IPhone, a direct call to voicemail—because we want to surround ourselves in our own moment. No one tells us what to do because we don’t listen to anyone anymore.
Was Kelly Clarkson being hopelessly old-fashioned when she went to her Twitter page the day after the VMAs to ask whether Kanye “was not hugged enough as a child”? How could Kanye himself, previously scheduled to be a guest on Jay Leno’s first show, not take the opportunity to spend a few moments to apologize yet again to Swift before he tore into his new single on stage with Jay Z and Rihanna? He is all about publicity.
But he probably didn’t expect to be completely caught off-guard in that seat next to Leno, when the host asked him what his recently-deceased mother Donda, would have said about what had happened the night before?
In the 12-seconds of painful silence in which he seemed to cover his face at the verge of tears, he instantly betrayed all the machismo and chest-beating bravado he had erected in his career. His behavior came from somewhere and now he was being called out in the most public of ways to not only atone, but to be someone entirely different from what his persona (and posse of enablers who collect paychecks from him) dictates.
It serves society no good when we attack Kanye and call him names. The vitriol that spewed the next day was the ravenous engine that drove the cable news broadcasts the next day –and we can catalog all the attacks, right or wrong, because the more we see all these Tweets from Pink, Clarkson, Katy Perry chiming in on Access Hollywood, etc., we are supposed to feel some relief that Kanye is getting his comeuppance.
Even the President got into it, although his comment that Kanye was a “jackass”, accidentally leaked by ABC News correspondent Terry Moran and then deleted, was probably something that most Americans sympathized with. The true hypocrisy is this: we get so involved in this collective wrist-slapping because that somehow makes us feel better. What we forget is that the same sources who provide us this stream of soundbites are the very same ones who will salivate when Kanye “drops” a new single, or steps out with his new girlfriend, or when he stomps on a photographer’s camera at LAX, etc. Our attention span is barely fleeting.
Call it what you want, but there is no longer any standard applied to what one calls “art” or skill. Keep it as outrageous and as cynical as you can. The joke is on you, America. You just don’t get it. And guess what? You can’t live without it.