The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jackass – The Nation

Watching Public Stupidity Punished Has Become Our Favorite Entertainment

A “jackass” is what President Obama apparently believes Kanye West to be for rudely interrupting the VMA Awards to express his disagreement with Taylor Swift’s win over Beyonce Knowles. Obama used the euphemism during informal banter prior to an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood. Former White House correspondent Terry Moran of ABC News overheard the remark and, not realizing Obama was speaking off the record, Twittered it to the world. ABC deleted the tweet within an hour but it was already being widely reported.

For some, the incident raises continuing concerns that Obama is insufficiently dignified and circumspect in his Presidential conduct. On the bright side, an African American President calling out a successful African American rap star for what most people agree was atrocious behavior undercuts the argument that Obama is a closet reverse racist, excusing offenses by black people while criticizing whites for similar mistakes.

There was plenty of impolite black behavior in the news over the weekend. In addition to West, African American tennis star Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball into one of several possible orifices of a line judge after the official called her for a foot fault during play in the U.S. Open.

Yet it was the outburst by Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina during Obama’s address to Congress last week that was saddled with new dimensions of hostility yesterday. The House Democratic leadership chose to rebuke Wilson officially after he refused to apologize formally on the chamber floor (Wilson already offered Obama a personal apology that the President accepted). Then former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News he thought Wilson’s actions were rooted in racism.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward [Obama] is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American,” said Carter. “Many white people, not just in the South but around the country, [believe] that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

Most people agree that Wilson’s display of disagreement was just as inappropriate to the occasion as that of West or Williams. Wilson’s wife Roxanne admitted that when her husband got home that night, and not realizing he was the guilty party, the first question she asked him was “Who is the nut?” that heckled the President.

Bad behavior does not deserve our tolerance, through either approval or even silent acceptance. Yet I cannot help but feel the responses to all of these indignities have contained healthy doses of overreaction.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times disagrees with me. This morning she wrote that Wilson’s rebuke “was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it.” Likewise, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post worries, “Civilization is a fragile and delicate idea, held together by a few mere threads, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent. Frays in those threads are daily apparent.”

However, Michael Kinsley, also of the Washington Post, believes overreaction has exacerbated annoying interruptions from our daily debates into dangerous distractions.

“No matter how important or otherwise the underlying issue may be, it seems that about three-quarters of American politics can now be distilled down to ‘How dare you say that!’ Taking offense at someone else's possibly over-vigorous exercise of free speech, demanding an apology and so on has replaced much serious discussion . . . Umbrage is so much easier.”

As Kinsley points out, this is more than a problem of overly delicate sensibilities. “Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark is actually delighted at the opportunity.” In other words, we too often use an offensive faux pas committed by the other side on often-unrelated argument B to win argument A, rather than winning A on the merits. “The rules of the game are perverse but simple – I scream with pain until you cry ‘uncle’.”

I agree with Kinsley’s evaluation but approach it from a different perspective.

Perhaps you remember the MTV series Jackass. The show was so popular it went on to spur two movie releases. In it, a group of stuntmen and would-be actors who seemed to pride themselves on their own stupidity – at least where their personal safety was concerned – undertook to perform a set of equally outrageous and stupid exploits. The boys seldom pulled off their tricks with complete success. Instead, the fun of the show came in watching them fail in extremely painful, sometimes life threatening, fashion.

It was not just that watching stupid people hurt themselves made us feel superior about ourselves, although this was unquestionably part of the appeal. In a world where we routinely watch rich businesspeople doing things that would get us sent to jail and instead earns them million dollar bonuses, paid by our taxes in the form of federal bailout money, Jackass provided a harshly comic, cosmic justice.

It is a basic human desire that has come to pervade all reality-based television. There is nothing anyone likes better than seeing an unpopular, unlikable characters receive their comeuppance during a show’s proceedings.

I think this spirit has made its way into our viewing of the news and other events as well. When those with wealth, power, and influence screw up, we find their embarrassment, confessions, and acts of contrition are not enough for us. We want their abject humiliation; we want to see some punishment dished out. It makes our own positions seem more correct, more intelligent, and nobler.

Defending himself against any need for a further apology, Wilson told his House colleagues, “I think it is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing this nation than what we're addressing right now.” This is no excuse for his behavior but it is a legimate point about the validity of attempting to guess the motivations behind that behavior and punish him for them.

It is the same argument offered by President Obama following his “jackass” remark. Sensing he may have gone too far, Obama immediately pleaded with those present to “Cut the President some slack. I've got a lot of other stuff on my plate.”

Despite his solid liberal Democratic credentials, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts voted “present” rather than to rebuke Wilson. While he deplored Wilson’s actions, Frank said, “I think it's bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks. I don't have time to monitor everyone's civility.”

Is it obvious that West felt Knowles made a better video than Swift because they are both black and Swift is white? A far more reasonable assumption is that West’s bias runs more favorably toward Knowles’s R&B style than Swift’s pop-country sound (I know my own does). Likewise, Wilson’s outburst seems far more reasonably motivated by sincere political disagreement with Obama, no matter how inappropriately expressed, than by racism.

Yet the need to judge and feel superior pervades both reporting and viewing. When Moran passed on Obama’s overheard remark, he followed it with the smug observation, “Now THAT’S Presidential.”

Our sports and music stars are supposed to entertain us. Our politicians and government officials are supposed to serve us. Their flare-ups, temper tantrums, and gaffes are supposed to be discomforting intrusions into those primary purposes. Instead, they seem to have become part of the entertainment, perhaps the main part and the public’s respect steadily declining as a result.

Yes, Obama was indiscreet if accurate to call West a jackass but Moran or anyone else did far worse in their rush to report it. Yes, Wilson committed an egregious error by shouting out his disagreement with Obama but Carter did far worse by assuming its attribution to racism.

I am forced to conclude the sum total of politics and pop culture have been reduced to one incredibly inane reality program, entitled Jackass – The Nation. We have every reason to expect better behavior from our public figures. However, if we want the tone of partisan rancor to tone down, we also have a responsibility to turn off the spectacle. We cannot punish stupidity into rationality; it views our attempts to do so as a desirable form of attention. After a proper admonishment, bad behavior is best ignored.

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