Unless you're in no way connected to an internet outlet of any significance (which your very reading of this evinces otherwise) you'vee seen that fateful 48 seconds of the Miss Teen USA pageant during which Miss Teen South Carolina (Lauren Caitlin Upton), as perhaps the most appropriate ambassador her state has ever put forward, rambled the most incoherent, mind-numbingly stupid answer to a question that I can ever recall. Even adjusting for nervousness, age, education level and general American intellectual malaise this stands out as an example to the world of just exactly what sort of young adults our country is turning out.
Just as quickly as the public-at-large was to jump all over this internationally broadcast feeble mindedness, the media has lept to her defense. Her appearance on the Today show featured a Matt Lauer who was so gushingly, effusively apologetic on her behalf, that it felt as if he were a moment away from asking her back to his dressing room. I immediately felt like showering afterwards and had to wash my hands simply to continue working.
I suppose that to expect any bitingly effective commentary from the group which bore Katie Couric is a bit like expecting the recollection of meaningful catharsis during Larry King's hour long tolerance of Paris Hilton (post-jail). But, today, after picking up the latest Newsweek magazine (mostly to read about Fred Thompson's looming presidential victory) I came upon the following paragraph in George F. Will's "The Last Word'" column, entitled "Now, Defining Decency Down":
Last week, there was nationwide merriment at the expense of an 18-year-old participant in a South Carolina beauty pageant. Asked a question about why many Americans might lack elementary knowledge about the world, she got lost in syntactical tangles and spoke nonsense. Although there was not a shred of news value in it, Fox News and CNN played the tape of her mortification, and by last Friday YouTube's presentation of it had generated more than 10 million hits. The casual cruelty of publicizing her discomfort, and the widespread entertainment pleasure derived from it, is evidence that standards of decency are evolving in the wrong direction.
Now, let be begin by saying, I know I am David taking shots at Goliath here. Well, in fairness, more like David's little brother taking on Goliath's angry dad. Mr. Will is a brilliant journalist and writer, whose talents far outreach my own. His achievements precede him, and he need not defend himself to the likes of me. And although this is most often said with vast and intentional insincerity, in addition to preceding something ridiculously disrespectful, please know I mean it when I say: with all due respect, Mr. Will, you're completely wrong on this one.
First off, this wasn't a South Carolina regional state fair beauty pageant, where some opportunistic bumpkin with a cell-phone video camera caught an unfortunate moment and sent it for the world to see. No, this was on network television, and in prime time, no less. This pageant is a Trump property, broadcast internationally, as a symbol of the best of America's youth. According to the associated website:
The Miss Universe Organization, producers of the . . . MISS TEEN USA competition, is an international company that advances and supports today's women. These women are savvy, goal-oriented and aware. The contestants who become part of the Miss Universe Organization display those characteristics in their everyday lives, both as individuals who participate in the competitions to advance their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and as women who seek to improve the lives of others.
These women are held out to the rest of us in the unwashed masses as both "savvy" and "aware", and Ms. Upton couldn't be farther from either. As I sit here, I can personally think of at least ten similarly aged young women who are both more savvy and aware than Lauren will ever be, and they will likely never gain the national stage that Lauren has. The transition of beauty pageants from "beauty contests" to "scholarship competitions' has been a well-documented by-product of the advancement of the rights of the modern female; and as well they should be. Lauren's performance is evidence that perhaps that transition may have been, in fact, nothing more than simple lip-service and that these events are nothing more than they previously were: "who's the prettiest" competitions. We should demand better.
Second, if Paris Hilton getting out of jail has news value (as evinced by the live coverage provided by EVERY national news service), than this example of the educational decay of our young people most certainly does as well. Despite the overwhelming opportunities provided to them (as compared to children in the rest of world) American teenagers, like Lauren, seem just plain stupid. Don't believe me? Stop a kid on the street and talk to them; or even better, listen in to their conversations (don't worry, they speak loudly enough that you won't have to get close -- amongst the many skills of our latest generation of teenagers, "polite volume control" does not seem to be on the list). Don't get me wrong, I realize that I can't expect kids to talk about current events, political hotbed issues or matters of genuine intellectual importance. After all, they're kids, and I certainly didn't when I was their age. But beyond just an obsession with the banal (which can fairly be attributed them without impugning their intelligence) they are wildly mis- and underinformed about the world around them, and they don't seem to care one bit. We live in a world of unprecedented access to information-- which our youngest generations have proven the most adept at being able to access, much more comfortably so than our older generations (e.g. Baby Boomers who all seem to think that Best Buy's Geek Squad is some of group of wizards, skilled in the Dark Arts of making their computers not hate them). And yet, they seem, as a group, to be the dumbest set we've turned out since tests were taken on individual chalkboards (come on, Laura Ingalls didn't know where "the Iraq" was either).
Newsworthy? You bet it is Mr. Will. This paradox means one of two things: One, our excesses have finally caught up with us. And, no, it isn't the end of the ozone layer or the complete deforestation of our national landscape. No, we have finally raised a generation of kids too lazy to access the world of information literally at their fingertips. They are, instead, content to sit on their couches and simultaneously consume gluttonous quantities of processed foods and reality television while letting their brains decay to mush. Or two, our kids are still ambitious and talented, and we've somehow misguided them into believing that the obtaining of a traditional, basic education is of such minimal importance as to overshadow almost any other pursuit. Perhaps we've invested our young ladies with the idea that being pretty is of paramount value, and that if you are pretty enough, you will have your every whim catered to, without ever having to work a day in your life; the new Cinderella story. Perhaps we've invested our young men with idea that being strong and stupid is the way to be lovable, and if that fails, then they are going to need to be rich out of their minds, in order to earn the company of the aforementioned pretty girls.
To afford this young lady a free pass of any sort based on her age is foolish and ignorant. A woman at eighteen years of age in 2007 is hardly a babe in the woods. An emotional maturity that far outstrips their male counterparts notwithstanding, beauty pageant participants are extensively trained and personally coached. She knew what was coming, and knew what she'd have to do. This was most certainly not her first pageant nor her first question and answer session -- I can only imagine how the rest of the South Carolina field performed. The fact that her best response to crisis was simply to (1) keep speaking, oblivious to the senselessness of what she was saying, and (2) smile and look pretty, is both sad and telling. Is this really how we want our "leaders of tomorrow" to perform under pressure?
To be certain, Ms. Upton did not have her privacy violated, as you seem to infer. In this fame obsessed culture, we seem to have forgotten one important tenant: if you put yourself out there for the world to see, then you'd better be as ready to be ridiculed as you are to be worshipped (American Idol tryouts anyone?). No one went into this girl's house or school classroom and asked her this question on camera. No. She volunteered. She wanted to be the beauty queen, and the price she pays is, at the very least, a loss of privacy and the publicity of her mistakes. No one's asking you to laugh along, sir, but spare us the looks down your nose.
To be honest, the amount of YouTube hits and the resulting malicious commentary is actually the only part of this sad, sordid tale which gives me hope. Because, perhaps, after the parade of false idols that we have thrust before us with such startling speed and intensity, we're finally willing to tell the Emperor that he's got nothing on.
Perhaps we're finally ready to poke holes in the insane self-righteousness of beauty pageants that wax on and on about the "intellectual" qualifications of its participants.
Perhaps there are members of the newest generation of young adults who are unsatisfied to let themselves be represented, even in part, by someone who thinks that somehow the educational woes of Americans are connected to South Africa.
Perhaps we're finally not ready to forgive someone their shortcomings solely because they've appeared on television.
I feel vicariously embarrassed for every beautiful, intelligent and culturally aware young woman that I know. And, yes, I laughed at Lauren, and completely at her expense, just like I laughed Jessica Simpson's mindless rambling on her reality TV series, and just like I laugh at the contestants on "the Bachelor" and, so you know, it's mostly laughing to keep from crying, because all I can say when I'm watching these tragedies is: "is this really the best we can do?"
Ms. Upton will be afforded an almost endless litany of free things as a result of being insanely, ridiculously and unfairly good-looking. She is a flawless physical specimen, perfectly groomed, and amazingly photogenic. But if "the titleholders of the Miss Universe Organization [are supposed to] personify the combination of beauty and intelligence that defines the 21st Century" as its website declares, the one thing she shouldn't get free is a pass from the organization or the rest of us for completely missing the mark. We, and they, can do better. And so can the kids in South Africa.