I've stopped worrying about the approaching H1N1 virus epidemic and started to focus more on the already-here contagion of rudeness that is apparently raging through the ranks of the prominent and privileged.
First South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson calls the president a liar on the floor of Congress—a gathering he and his peers have invited the president to address. Then Serena Williams, outraged over what she perceives as an incorrect line call, sends a scalding stream of expletives at the line judge who made the call and threatens to ram a tennis ball down the woman's throat. And on Sunday, at the MTV Awards, Kanye West decides to hijack country singer Taylor Swift's award by snatching her mic and telling the audience he's happy for her and all that, but his friend Beyonce really should have won.
Used to be, in our community, one of the biggest insults and deepest embarrassments was to pronounce that someone had no home training. It meant your people hadn't taken the time to raise you right. Apparently now that's become an aspiration, not something to avoid. Chalk it up to the Cult of Me, which used to be an accusation aimed only at young and youngish people, but Rep. Wilson is as grown as he's going to get, yet he didn't use the civility South Carolinians pride themselves on when it came to the president of the United States. (Maureen Dowd nailed it in her Sunday NYT column, well worth a look if you haven't seen it: "Some people can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it.") And by seeking to diminish the president, he only diminished himself.
In a post-game apology, Serena says she was momentarily carried away, does indeed know how to act and urges the young people who see her as a role model to not emulate her behavior. Maybe she did lose it momentarily—heat of competition and all that—but she was angry, not crazy, and she knows better. Simply wearing a skirt on the court doesn't make one a lady—behaving like one does. And threatening to force-feed a judge with your tennis ball is brutish. Don't think people won't remember it when they see Ms. Williams off-court in her glam togs, smiling for the camera. (And yes, you can give me the "John McEnroe did it" argument, but 1) that doesn't make it OK and 2) 10 times better—performing, behaving—is still the rule when it comes to us.)
And Kanye was just wrong, start to finish. I don't know what spirit moved him to insult Taylor Swift on what should have been her big night—I suspect that particular spirit came from the half-empty bottle of Hennessy he was flaunting when he arrived at the awards—but there is no excuse, none, for his loutish, selfish behavior. (And I don't want to go all Farrakhan on you, but is there some significance that all the folk who had etiquette emergencies lately have names that start in Ws? Just asking…)
The silver lining in all this: After people recovered from their shock—they reacted. Disapproval rained down on Wilson immediately after he shouted "you lie," and although he issued an apology to the president (which was accepted), he remains an embarrassment to his own party. The Tennis Federation may sanction Serena. And the MTV Video Music Awards hall echoed with boos, cat-calls and more scatalogical assessments of Kanye's behavior, even his manhood (not polite, but live by the sword, etc.) while he was still on stage.
That may be an indication that the tide is turning and "out" behavior is no longer as amusing or acceptable as it once was. I hope so.
I also hope that Rep. Wilson is spanked on the floor of the House for his disrespect and fined. And that Serena's $350,000 check for that day's play at the Open is withheld as a fine. And that Kanye is removed from consideration for any MTV award for the next few years for his insanely rude behavior at the MTV awards. Money talks.
And someone should send Beyonce's mom flowers. Because to raise up a young woman who had the intelligence and grace to recognize that a wrong had been done to a fellow performer and right it in the way that Beyonce did indicates that the next generation—in her home, anyway—will be chock-full of home training.
Maybe she should consider inviting Joe, Serena and Kanye to dinner, so a little of that can rub off on them.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).