Monday, September 14, 2009

Public Decency

I don’t pay a lot of attention to the news, particularly when it comes to celebrities. If you asked me to tell you anything about an actor or pop-music performer who has become famous in the last 10 years, you can forget it. I am doomed to fail at winning future games of Trivial Pursuit.

Nonetheless, when I open my e-mail, or log onto MySpace, I am besieged by images and names. If they are repetitive enough, I sort of remember them. If the headline seems really bizarre, I might actually read the article, if for no other reason than to see what kind of “not news” it is.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am fond of finding patterns in events. The patterns may be meaningless, but sometimes they give you an idea about what we pretentiously call “cultural hermeneutics”. (Go ahead—use that term in a sentence today. I dare you.) It’s a fancy term for interpreting culture through its images and messages, particularly in the media.

Today’s pattern might be called, “Public figures behaving badly in public, and/or committing criminal acts.” I don’t mean paparazzi finding someone passed out drunk, or at an orgy, or whatever. I mean in public forums, at public events—places where a certain respectful behavior is expected. Concurrently, these are people who might serve as role models for younger generations, or at least have an influence over some segment of the population. I can divide these into 3 categories:

Sports figures: I don’t know if things have changed, but I’d always learned that the reason one joined a sports team was to learn “teamwork” and “sportsman-like” behavior. This meant winning and losing gracefully, having the discipline to practice for long hours, and behaving in a mature and exemplary manner.

There have always been exceptions to this—the Paul O’Neills, the John MacEnroes—though one could say that they were so dedicated to perfection that their outbursts were more a fit of self-criticism. Then there was O.J. Simpson, who gave us the valuable lesson that a sports hero could horribly murder two people and get away with it. At least society at large had the decency to express their disapproval, and it basically ruined him.

But then consider Michael Vick—after the horrible crime he committed, he still gets signed to an NFL team and has his supporters. When the Olympics were happening, there was a rash of racist behavior, decidedly unsportsmanlike comments between competitors, and questions about performance-enhancing drug use and other means of sidestepping the rules to win. Most recently, Serena Williams had an inexcusable outburst at the U.S. Open. What used to be isolated incidents of unsportsmanlike behavior are now more frequent and more intense.

Pop Singers/”Musicians”/Rappers: I’m showing my prejudice and age here, as I tend to regard most corporate-sponsored “music” as “not music”. Someone recently commented to me that there’s been no real innovation in popular music for about 20 years. One might argue about the time frame, but certainly there’s not much that’s “Top 40” that I would give any credence to as “music” since the start of the 21st century at least.

I understand that “rappers”, much like punks before them, are supposed to have a bad-boy or bad-girl attitude and lifestyle—it somehow goes with the image. Though I have to say it’s really hard to take the whole attitude seriously when you know the person is raking in several million dollars a year. Yeah, I know some will protest the idea of “selling out”, but really—when you’ve got money and status you get away with a lot that the inner-city urbanites you identify with would not get away with (see: OJ Simpson above).

I had always thought that record companies hired special “assistants” to handle their “artist’s” public image. Either the economy has floundered to the point that they can no longer afford this, or the assistants aren’t doing their jobs so well these days. To be fair, they may have bigger idiots to wrangle with. Take Kayne West, for instance. Kayne is one of those celebrities whose name I see flashing on MySpace once in awhile, or in some Yahoo news headline. I don’t know squat about his music or biography, and I don’t care. He appears to be doing rap, and he’s definitely pop, so that puts him off my list of artists to check out immediately. Yes, that sounds old-fogeyish, but so be it.

Yesterday’s outburst by Kayne West at the MTV Music (ha!) Awards basically involved two “musicians” I would rather undergo a root canal than have to listen to (I don’t like country-pop either). But forget about that—this is a major awards ceremony. Regardless of how bad-ass you are or think you are, there is a certain expected respectful behavior towards those nominated for and receiving awards. Mr. West apparently thinks he’s special enough to jump onstage and give his opinion of the selection. Of course, probably no one cares about his opinion on anything, but he apparently has never been taught basic civility and manners. And I mean REALLY basic—maybe we could rule out cannibalism. And what’s interesting is that this is not the first time he’s done it. Each time, he blames alcohol for his outburst. Hmm, let’s see, if you behave like a total idiot every time you drink before a public event—wouldn’t you NOT drink before a public event? No, sorry, that’s too logical and requires some self-restraint. Forgive me. But I have to admit, it caught my attention because it’s flagrant sense of ego and entitlement. “I’m so important, I don’t have to respect you.”

TV “Journalists”: Again, I use journalism in quotes, because very little of it seems to happen these days. Most “news” shows are actually highly partisan, and have more interest in creating drama and spreading party propaganda than discussing actual facts. Yes, I’m talking to you Fox News. Sean Hannity. Glenn Beck. To be fair, there are other news shows that can show the opposite bias, and that’s just as wrong. But Fox News has taken things to a new height of exploitation, of trying to manipulate conservative Republicans, many of whom are seniors and veterans, into believing the lies that they are spreading. People who always believed that the news “must be true” because journalists obviously do fact-checking. Well, maybe they did at one time. But I am startled, disturbed, and fascinated as I observe that in all of the debates about legislation started by Barack Obama, there has been very few facts actually introduced into the debate. Painting Barack Obama as a “Hitler” or “Nazi” or “Fascist” is a very scary projection of their own racist and exclusivist attitude. And what happened to “You don’t question the President in a time of war”, and “If you don’t agree with the President—this is America, love it or leave it”? And don’t get me started on Representative Joe Wilson.

Seeing all of these things, the bottom line for me is this: people have become so narcissistic and self-centered that mature displays of decorum and decency are increasingly being thrown out the window. I’m not in favor of repression, but there is a difference between repressing your feelings and behaving like a mature adult. I hate to say it, but being a public figure demands that you behave in public. Anyone with a sense of responsibility towards and respect for their fellow human beings would curb their behavior in public. That doesn’t mean you can’t protest or respectfully state your views in a public forum. And you can think what you like privately, do what you want in your own home—but when you’re onstage, on the field, at a public ceremony, or on television—you need to show that you have enough class to be there. Yes, I know, with YouTube everyone is a celebrity these days. But not everyone is raking in millions with lots of media exposure. That gives one a level of cultural power that should be used wisely. Sadly, it isn’t, and the message about society that comes out of it is sad, too.

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