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No reward for bad behavior

Congressman Joe Wilson, tennis star Serena Williams and hip-hop artist Kanye West didn't have a problem running their mouths. But our collective response was heartening.

September 19, 2009|SANDY BANKS

A week of public hand-wringing may have exhausted readers' interest in the recent displays of boorishness by political, athletic and entertainment figures.

But I'm going to write about it anyway. Because this is my column. It's got my name on it, plus a picture of my face. Why else would you be reading Sandy Banks if you didn't want to know what I think? What matters is me.

Like, if I wanted to stride on stage and snatch the mike from an award winner in the middle of her thank-you speech. That's not rude, that's just keeping it real.

Or insult the president by calling him a liar in the midst of his address to the nation. Or curse out and threaten an editor . . . er, line judge . . . who makes a bad call in a big match when I'm already losing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Kanye West: Sandy Banks' column in Saturday's Section A said musician Kanye West commented during a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert that "George Bush doesn't like black people." In fact, he said that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Rules don't matter, other people's feelings don't matter, respect for institutions doesn't matter. . . . Because it really is all about me.

That's the kind of out-sized sense of self-importance that landed the unlikely triumvirate of Congressman Joe Wilson, tennis player Serena Williams and musician Kanye West in a shared spotlight this week.

Their outbursts sparked a pitched debate over the nation's sinking social mores, the presumed decline of civility, the lingering racism in our supposedly post-racial society.

But a week riding the roller coaster of excuses, judgments and apologies has led me to a more optimistic place.

We still recognize rudeness. And we responded as we should -- with a collective knuckle-rapping.


What happened to their manners? That was my first thought. I cringed at the images of Wilson, then Williams, then West in action.

If you've watched them often enough -- on blogs, new shows, the downloads on your kids' iPods -- you could, depending on your personal lens, see the acts as something more ominous than simple discourtesy.

There was musical genius Kanye West -- with his dark glasses and edgy haircut -- muscling in on waif-like Taylor Swift in the middle of her thank-you speech at the Video Music Awards. Her country music innocence upended by his hip-hop swagger.

And tennis champion Serena Williams looking like a schoolyard bully, marching toward the line judge -- who seemed so tiny in all that rain gear -- waving her tennis ball like a hand-grenade and hurling curses, straight outta Compton, it seemed.

And South Carolina's Joe Wilson -- an unrepentant Confederate son -- flinging "You lie!" at President Obama so arrogantly I had to wonder if it wasn't, on some level, just a new way of calling a black man "boy" to his face.

But blaming either racial tensions or our increasingly uncivil culture doesn't go far enough. Add the cutthroat nature of partisan politics, and the passion and impetuousness of athletes and artists, and you're almost there.

We're also seeing what happens when out-sized egos believe the hype, pumped up by the hero-making capabilities of technology. If we can blog and tweet and share every detail of our day with millions of followers, fans and friends, then how important we must be.

And if your followers are prone to rants accusing the president of being a foreigner, and the websites pushing your political views liken Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, you might see nothing wrong with pitching a verbal shoe at the president as the nation watches.

If you've risen beyond tennis legend -- bigger and badder than everyone else -- and are moving into icon status, you're not supposed to lose a match to a has-been just back from maternity leave, particularly with the whole world watching.

And when you're the hip-hop world's reigning genius and resident conscience -- his "George Bush doesn't like black people" comment won accolades during the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert -- you might not realize that not everyone cares or needs to know how much you admire Beyonce.


I understand how it feels to have a platform, and enjoy strutting your stuff. And I know it's easy to go too far, to let conviction or passion push you past smart and into smart aleck.

But I also know how important it is to say I'm sorry. Because even if you have your fingers crossed and don't really mean it, you learn something from that.

So my anger faded this week, as I watched this trio bumble along, trying to get a grip on how badly they had gone wrong. I was disappointed by their mealy-mouthed apologies. But our collective response heartened me.

Wilson was admonished by the House of Representatives for the embarrassing "breach of decorum" that made the institution look bad. Williams was fined $10,500 for "unsportsmanlike conduct" and lost her match. And West was escorted out of Radio City Music Hall and booed by an audience that had always shown him love.

How much does it matter to them? I don't know.

But it was a nudge from us toward decency.

Because there on Wednesday's "Good Morning, America" was a contrite and smiling Williams, promising to find "a more professional way of voicing my opinion," and wishing she could give that line judge "a big ol' hug."

And there was Kanye West on the "Jay Leno Show," apologizing not only for making a fool of himself, but for "hurting someone" with his selfish impulsive act.

Leno hit him where it hurts, with a question I would have asked myself. If your mother were here, what would she say about this?

West covered his eyes and couldn't speak. His silence spoke volumes. I watched him squirm and thought, lesson learned.


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