I think we can all blame Congress for taking an extended recess in the middle of summer. Lawmakers should be in Washington, giving overheated scolds material for substantial debate and meaningful social and political criticism. Instead, we are about to end an off-year's slowest month talking about rodeo clowns, Batfleck, and Miley Cyrus' bizarre performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.
We certainly have plenty of serious topics to discuss, and to our credit, we have been discussing them … at least in between the flashes of pop-culture hysteria and outrage. Egypt's coup has deeply serious implications for our global security strategies, and not just because it might end up damaging the tenuous peace between Cairo and Jerusalem. Egypt controls the Suez Canal, and with it Western access from Mediterranean bases to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the undeniable and significant use of chemical weapons in Syria has changed the calculus for the U.S. and the West, and it might put us in direct conflict with Russia yet again. At home, we have a debt ceiling approaching in a couple of months, and a health-care system overhaul that has its wheels falling off with just weeks to go before an individual mandate is officially imposed on Americans.
Those issues, however, are dry, tedious, and complex. They don't lend themselves to easy solutions. They also share one other characteristic: They are mostly out of the hands of citizens at this point. Foreign policy belongs entirely to the executive branch, and while we can make cogent arguments for all of the options in these cases, we have no real input into them. The Affordable Care Act has passed into statutory law and most of its funding comes from statutory spending rather than annual budgets now. At least Congress can try to amend the statutes to delay the mandate once the legislature reconvenes in September, but Congress can't take any direct action on Egypt or Syria.
So we've spent our summer on an outrage binge. A couple weeks ago, Tuffy Gessling did a familiar rodeo-clown skit at the Missouri State Fair poking fun at the president of the United States, and turned into Public Intolerance Enemy Number One. He donned a mask of Barack Obama and asked the crowd whether the bull should run over him. Never mind that this act goes all the way back to Ronald Reagan; never mind that presidential masks have been a popular satirical item since Richard Nixon. The nation decided that Gessling must be an intolerant bigot and demanded that the Show Me State show Gessling the door. Politicians inside and outside the state denounced Gessling, who tried to offer an apology to no great effect.
After acquiring a lifetime ban from the Missouri State Fair, Gessling emerged this week like Punxsutawney Phil to check his shadow and see whether the Summer of Outrage had passed yet. He spoke to Kansas City's CBS affiliate KCTV to note that his act has included every president since Reagan, and that the real problem is that people have forgotten how to take a joke. "Look at the country as a whole," Gessling told KCTV. "There is a lot more to be mad at than a rodeo clown at a rodeo trying to make somebody laugh."
Of course there is — such as casting the next Batman movie. Producers who plan to pair the Caped Crusader with the Man of Steel for the next big comic-book theatrical release announced that Ben Affleck would play Bruce Wayne. Based on the internet's reaction, one would have thought that Batman was this century's Hamlet, with the role filled by Screech from Saved By The Bell. Comic book fans, who appear to run Hollywood these days, started an online petition drive to oust Affleck (in fairness, they probably paid to see Daredevil), while CBS News analyzed the backlash.
Thankfully, the nation has now moved on to more pressing issues, which brings us back to the stripper-pole aesthetic of the MTV VMAs and Miley Cyrus. Commentators from major networks and publications spent the first 24 hours offering their own versions of why this was The End Of Civilization As We Know It, mostly as a way of riding their own hobby horses. Vulture's Jody Rosen gave Cyrus the rodeo-clown treatment, claiming that her act "was all about race" because, er, she sexually interacted with a black dancer as well as a lily-white Robin Thicke. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski scolded Cyrus for her physique, claiming that the actress-singer "probably has an eating disorder," is "deeply disturbed," and "someone needs to take care of her." (Did I mention that Brzezinski has a new book out about her own struggles with body image?) Peggy Young Nance blamed Disney, even though the former Hannah Montana star has nothing to do with the entertainment giant now.
Needless to say, I'm not in MTV's target audience. And until Cyrus' twerking became a national crisis, I wasn't even aware of this year's VMAs. It's been 20 years since I purposefully watched a music video. But as a conservative commentator, I'd be a very likely candidate for outrageous outrage over this tongue-wagging twerk-a-thon.
After the eruption, I sought out and watched the full clip. It's outrageous, alright … for its utter lack of originality as well as taste. For the last 30 years or so, we've been watching this bump-and-grind choreography in music videos and live performances. Even the music doesn't sound as though it's changed, except to add autotune to the vocals. Perhaps Cyrus scores a minor point for original thought by adding teddy bears into the mix, but Madonna basically offered the same act with crucifixes in the 1980s. Cyndi Lauper offered a musical paean to masturbation with She Bop in 1984, which makes She Bop nine years older than Cyrus.
Pop culture is in a state of arrested adolescence, and has been for decades. At least Cyrus has the excuse of being somewhere close to her own adolescence. The number offers nothing so much as a clueless self-parody about the music industry's lack of innovation and original thought, demonstrated by an absurdist representation of sexualized childhood that might have been insightful had it been done purposefully. The only original outrage is that people tune in to watch this dreck, and spend money on the same dance track from when I occasionally visited the clubs in my misspent youth.
I never thought I'd say this, but …. It's a good thing that Congress comes back into session soon.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Here comes the Pentagon's newest space plane
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Extreme haunted houses: Inside Halloween's most terrifying new trend
- Did the media get Ferguson wrong?
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- America's anti-feminist mega-corporations' toxic disregard for women must stop
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week