Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Two Pop Culture Stories Worth Talking About

Normally, either of these stories would extract an huge yawn from me and a turn of the page or a click of the clicker. But between the Clay Aiken/Kelly Ripa/Rosie O'Donnell dustup and Michael Richards' embarassment, there's an interesting cultural point to explore: what are the rules of engagement in public now?

Yea, I know, these are questions that far greater authorities on "morality" or even political correctness than I have wrestled with for decades. Still, the coincidence of these two events threw into sharp contrast for me the distinctions that we will have to make as a society as to what's appropriate, and what's not.

Michael Richards, "Kramer" from Seinfeld (which alone ought to garner him contempt, but I digress), was interrupted during a stand-up comedy routine over the weekend in Los Angeles, took offense (apparently a group of fifteen young African Americans were being seated, having their drink orders taken, and just generally unsettling Richards) and went off on a tirade that went from ugly to downright despicable and violence-laden. The tape of the incident that you may have seen on the web starts a few moments into the exchange, and already has him on a racist roll, with a side of "cracker".

Clearly, throwing the "N-bomb" in public is a no-no, at least if you want to be taken as a serious member of society. Richards overstepped his bounds, and probably ruined his career, a la Mel Gibson's drunken rant at California sheriffs who pulled him over.

Over and over again, like a hammer on an anvil, Richards repeatedly denigrated his audience, insulting not just the African Americans, but getting a few cheap shots in at Mexicans as well (not sure where that came from).

To make things worse, "Kramer" picked an wholly inappropriate venue to attempt to make an apology, "The Late Show with David Letterman," a mistake he picked up on almost immediately.

It's hard to believe that in 2006, any number of people would witness a man apologizing for such thoroughly outrageous behavior, and laugh. I'm not sure I get what they think the joke is. A few things occured to me, like perhaps those few (to be fair) audience members hadn't seen the tape, and thought Richards was kidding around, but Jerry Seinfeld, who was Letterman's in-studio guest, made it clear that it was no joking matter, and the laughter continued.

Perhaps, like Gibson, the audience was merely a little high and were letting their dark side show through.

Richards has always had an unusual sense of humour (he was one of the few funny people on the hideous ABC attempt to rip off Saturday Night Live back in the 80s), and so maybe the audience thought this was a bit of performance art, an Andy Kaufmanesque sketch.

No matter. That train wreck happened and I think we can all agree that it's best left to die a quiet death now.

But now contrast that with the other story I mentioned: Aiken-Ripa-O'Donnell.

You may not have seen this. Goodness knows I only heard about it this morning on the Today Show:
Anyway, the whole business started last Friday when Clay was a guest on "Live with Regis and Kelly." Ripa claims Clay was hostile toward her on the show and took great exception to the fact that Clay jokingly put his hands over her mouth during an interview.

"I don't know where that hand has been," Kelly snapped.

On Tuesday, a revved-up Rosie called Kelly's comment "homophobic."

"To me, that's a homophobic remark," Rosie said. "If that was a straight man, if that was a cute man. If that was a guy who she didn't question his sexuality, she would've said a different thing."

If I clamp my hand over the mouth of a woman who is neither my wife nor my daughter (and even then, I'd better have a goddam good excuse), I'm committing an assault. It doesn't matter if I'm gay, straight, or somewhere in between. Period. Ripa's comment was perfectly appropriate. After all, she doesn't know if Clay washes up when he uses the can (surveys suggest as many as 75% of men don't).

True, one could take that to be a homophobic comment, and here's how:
One advantage we had in the old days was that prejudice was in your face, like a thin skin of scum at the top of a putrid waterway. Now, its much harder to know who you can trust, and when the mask falls, it can be a shocking experience.
The HuffPo blogger in question, Eric Deggans, is black.

So now we see this question from both sides of the equation: where do we draw the line at defending ourselves by risking offending other people? It's common ettiquette to correct someone else's behavior by pointing out how it affects you: "please cover your mouth when coughing," for example. Ripa's comment, to me, falls in that genre pretty clearly. Richards falls way on the other end of the spectrum.

But there's a flip side to this question as well: when is it OK to take offense at something?

You're reading this, undoubtedly, on a computer attached to the Internets. The Internet has brough mass communication home in a powerful way: quite literally, my voice can be heard alongside yours, and ours can be heard alongside any number of traditional authority figures. And on the 'Net, there is no "right answer," for the simple fact that it's all about what we bring personally to the discussion.

So we're going to hear a lot of this type of garbage, since one way (as Fox has cynically utilized over and over again) of making your voice stand out is to voice an extremist position, and loudly. And the more extremist, the more people will listen (if only to go "ohmygod, some asshole really believes that?").

What the Net brings to our culture is that, not only is it incumbent on people to speak clearly, plainly and with consideration for the other person's feelings (or risk a "Kramer" career ender), but it is now incumbent upon the receiver to weigh all these factors as well.

Which is a good thing, in the long run, although there's going to be hell to pay until people get this. See, we're so used to have information spoon-fed to us, which explains why Bush is still President, that we've lost the ability to think as we listen.