These are strange days. The country is nearly insolvent and our creditors twitchy. Healthcare is scarce, foreclosures common, dreaded “Socialism” threatens, and our leaders warn us that we are in the grips of an existential struggle against “evil.” Freedom and liberty hang in the balance. Yet in this moment of historic peril when our way of life is said to be at risk from within and from without, our reproachful gaze is trained on a libidinous golfer.
Is this a telltale sign of the End of Days, or the opposite, a benign manifestation of lurid escapism that vindicates the enduring strength of our oftentimes-crass culture?
Cultural curmudgeons might take solace in the fact that fascination with icons is almost certainly innate, transcending time and place. Technology only magnifies the tendency by making modern-day icons more accessible, more ubiquitous. There is more to the story, though.
Curiously, the objects of our attention are both adored and abhorred. The paradoxical coexistence of an insatiable curiosity and lust for scandal is part and parcel of the culture of celebrity. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked; from fame flows resentment. Jealousy may be partially responsible for the apparent contradiction. We pine for the good life, greedily sopping it up vicariously through our celebrities, and then exalt when they get their comeuppance for having what we want. But surely this cannot entirely explain the venom directed at unlucky celebrities who fall from grace. Something else is amiss.
Consider the reaction to Tiger Woods’ infidelities. The golfer’s fame rested exclusively on his athletic talent. Indeed, even by sports stars’ standards, Woods’ tightly-controlled image that hermetically sealed off the person from the public persona made it impossible for him to be seen as more than an athletic automaton. He stood for nothing and therefore could stand for everything on behalf of his many corporate sponsors. Yet once his infidelities became known, the scorn heaped on him was in direct proportion the adoration he once enjoyed.
The schadenfreude is bigger than Woods. It is the result of a social fabric torn by the failure of so many of our institutions and public leaders. We are tired of false prophets. And there are many.
An economy that we believed would provide ever-increasing wealth has failed to deliver. For a decade (decade!) it has not produced a single aggregate job. Median incomes are falling. The Wall Street meltdown has only cemented a sense of disillusionment with both the once much-admired generators of wealth and with those public institutions meant to regulate them.
Our leaders are complicit. Many of the same ones responsible for the economic collapse from their perches at well-heeled houses of finance are now crafting a response to it from rarified perches in government. The same sort of redemption is in short supply for the average homeowner struggling to pay the mortgage or blue-collar worker made redundant. Such is our democracy.
A bogus vision of a fight to preserve “freedom” feeds the sense of betrayal. If so much is at stake in Iraq and Afghanistan why is so little being asked by those aside from those in the military and their families? And what about the cost? Can we afford such expensive flights of fancy?
The answers are few and disillusionment great, fueling a right wing populism that blames convenient scapegoats—immigrants, Muslims, intrusive government with its regulations and taxes, etc. But the impact of our disquiet is far broader. The blood-in-the-water rapaciousness with which we tear into our fallen public figures is also an expression of our deep-seated disenchantment. It’s a Twenty-first century-style peasant uprising whereby those with wealth and fame are subject to guillotining through media-facilitated decapitation. It makes no difference how a given celebrity has acquired his fame or how he has slipped up. The Jacobins lay in wait.
Tiger Woods was caught in that vortex. The sorry soul sold as the face of corporate virtue turns out to have been otherwise. But what are corporate virtues anyway? Accenture, one of Woods’ sponsors, was formerly Arthur Anderson before its untimely demise on account of its nefarious association with Enron. But that’s another matter.
Woods’ real transgression was to transgress in an era when we’re desperate to prove that there are no heroes, no public figures of merit, from our political to PGA leaders. These are times of great insecurity but at least we can take comfort knowing that our low expectations will always be met.