The Modern Mosaic: Kanye West, Hunting Gays, Fear of Falling, and a Public Library Closing

Last night Kanye West rushed the stage at MTV’s Music Awards ceremony in protest of the gift of “Best Female Video” to Taylor Swift instead of Beyonce Knowles. The fallout has been scattershot and fast. Reality stars and other celebrities have gotten in line to take a shot at West, and the rest of us in the peanut gallery have parroted their clatter.

I like Kanye West and am happy to see he is not constrained by the imposition of manners in a forum as tawdry as a cable channel awards ceremony. The entire precept is a boorish endeavor in self-promotion, both for MTV and the artists who must pay alms in exchange for a place in the playlist. To have a public event hosted by MTV where anyone in the gallery can chin check the milquetoast junk trying to pass as “best” anything is a boon for everyone involved.

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Before West rushed the stage, VMA fans were listening to Swift try and fail to say anything of worth with the patform presented her. “I always dreamed about what it would be like to maybe win one of these someday, but I never actually thought it would happen,” she droned. “I sing country music so thank you so much for giving me a chance to win a VMA award.”

MTV owes West a small debt of gratitude for transforming this tired act of public prostration into something confrontational, heartfelt, and entertaining. Taylor Swift is not the “best” at anything, and we need not sit passively by as she is labeled such just because the authority of big media is behind the honor. Debates have rules, public policy requires decorum; entertainment does not.

If you really disagree with West’s argument, you are free to that opinion, but objecting to West behavior strikes me as sheepish. Since when do the VMA’s require any kind of reverence? Art and entertainment are arenas where we can call each other out, hector one another, test one another’s relevance in a court where the public ultimately gets to decide what they believe. Events like the VMA’s should encourage dissent and have their choices subject to public scrutiny. If things like this will continue to cloud big media, we should be able to toss tomatoes from the back row, and the front.

What’s more disturbing to me is the degree to which many people seem uncomfortable with the whole idea of a debate over something admittedly frivolous. A few friends today fell back to traditional arguments (via Facebook) that continuing to pore over the already cooling scandal was just an extension of free marketing for all parties involved. Another friend excoriated his intimates for wasting time worrying about the West debacle when serious issues were afoot in the country. To back his claim he cited a story about a Public Library in Philadelphia closing because it had not received the necessary funding from the state legislature.

I find this kind of thinking about the media deeply illiterate and scary. It makes us think better of ourselves engaged in only serious endeavors like dissecting state-deficit levels and ignoring the shenanigans of entitled celebrities. The media should be a proctor to ferret out policy stories and engender social change, it shouldn’t remind us of our most frivolous and gullible qualities.

In a review of “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century,” Martha C. Nussbaum talks about the modern fear of falling in love many women are alleged to have. “We employ a whole battery of devices to lessen our exposure to experience, to distance ourselves from real vulnerability: we regard our passions with ironic distance; we convert sex into a commodity; we glorify momentary pleasure rather than lasting emotion.”

If large parts of the media reflect our frivolous fixation on stories that lack global significance, it’s only because we are still drawn in by those stories. We are frivolous, our attention spans are not quite so dissimilar from that of a dog who must immediately look every time a tennis ball is presented or the tinkle of the leash is heard in a hallway. We understand this about ourselves, but we still have not exorcised our shame over it. We hate ourselves for instinctually perking up our ears every time a celebrity scandal worms its way into the headlines.

Instead, is it possible that we can both indulge in our fundamental frivolity while also taking seriously public policy debates, human rights issues, scientific breakthrough, and philosophical confrontation? Of course. But first we’ll have to get over the remnant self-loathing. Let yourself be titillated. Let yourself be enraged, scandalized, or disgusted. And leave it in its proper context.

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I liked the scandal and the feeling that our avenues of cultural exchange were still open to confrontation. The story I read just prior to it was about Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Baghdad infiltrating gay chat rooms to kidnap and murder gays and lesbians. Meanwhile the autonomous Iraqi police struggle to offer real protection. One man had his anus filled with glue and his penis severed. His mother had to identify the body.

So who’ll be willing to wade into that foreign affairs swamp to reach a conclusion? What policy shall we support in a country where once-safe minorities are being slaughtered by theocratic militiamen? And how does that jibe with the red vs. blue team demagoguery that continues to color our political discourse?

Whatever conclusions we find in the history ahead, it will come from an acceptance of our inherent nature as simultaneously low and high creatures. Both dogs and scholars, reconciling with a world where Taylor Swift and Kanye West are separated from the murder of those pursuing their own private pleasure by a click of the finger.

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