Congressman Joe Wilson calls the President a liar; Serena Williams threatens to force-feed a line judge a tennis ball; Kanye West creates a media frenzy by interrupting a meaningless award presentation. And everywhere -- from USA Today to the Washington Post to The View -- America agonizes: "When did we become so rude?" "What became of common courtesy?" "What happened to our manners?"
I've been a little unfocused lately (what with feverishly anticipating a new season of Two and a Half Men) and my attention span has never been the best, so I must have missed the great Gilded Age of Politeness that Marco R. della Cava, Brad Hirschfield, and others are recalling with such melancholy. Could someone with a better memory than mine remind me of those vanished halcyon days? Regale me with stories of a bygone era when the good citizens of this Republic were able to purchase salt water taffy and visit the penny arcade without being subjected to the spectacle of such uncouth vulgarians.
Rep. Wilson is many things, but Congress' first jackass he ain't. Americans are unused to displays of violence like those seen every week in other parliamentary bodies across the globe (reps in India and South Korea seem especially fond of mayhem), but there were fistfights and foul mouths in Congress almost from the get-go. Preston Brooks going all Goodfellas on Charles Sumner is remembered best, but spirits were similarly "elevated" in the days leading up to World War I, in the McCarthy years, and during the debate over Civil Rights.
Meanwhile tennis commentator Mary Carillo opines in the New York Daily News that Williams' U.S. Open outburst deserves a stiffer punishment. Carillo's co-host, John McEnroe, remained curiously silent on the matter, possibly because he was holed up at the nearest Flushing Meadows bar, laughing his ass off with Jimmy Connors and Ilie Năstase. I guess Carillo never offered Johnny Mac her feedback about his referring to a French referee as a "frog" or similarly dropping f-bombs in his tirades.
Finally, Kanye. The amount of ink and pixels wasted on this attention whore in the last week almost dwarfs the gushing over Michael Jackson's death. Hell, the Houston Press alone did 300 blogs about the guy, and for what? For behaving exactly as he does every time someone gives him a microphone. Individually, these incidents mean little, but put everything together and media pundits suddenly trip over each other proclaiming the death of courtesy.
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Look, I'm not going to sit here and argue that these three don't...have issues, or that people don't enjoy screaming at each other, or that things like those poorly attended rallies that give spelling-impaired racists a chance to bellow ill-informed slogans equating socialism with fascism -- I think they're called "teabag parties" -- are good for political debate. But rather than pointing fingers at the douchebag carrying the sign exhorting us to "Impeach the Muslim Marxist," we should be holding up mirrors. We're the ones that allowed this to happen.
Think Wilson's behavior was the bell tolling for civility? Wilson wasn't the one who helped the Jerry Springer Show run for 19 seasons (and counting). Reasoned, well-informed discussion doesn't generate nearly as many advertising dollars or click-throughs as screaming and hyperbole do. And that's the way we want it. It's why when we hear "Clinton" the first thing that leaps to mind is "blow job." It's why Bush's verbal gaffes continue to generate more publicity than the inconvenient fact that there were no WMD in Iraq, and that his administration knew it all along. It's why we've devoted so much effort to agonizing over Joe Wilson's outburst, while treating Obama's speech itself as an afterthought.
America has been led to believe -- quite willingly, I might add -- that the minutiae and petty bullshit are what's important. We like to think we're a "polite society," but we really are is a nation of Gladys Kravitzes, always eager for the next sex scandal or drunken outburst on TMZ that we can caw about.
On the plus side, it's a great time to be a pop culture blogger.