Saturday, December 5, 2009

A QUAKER CHILD GOES ON SABBATICAL

ON THE TIGER WOODS FLAP: Since the Philadelphia Inquirer did not take this op-ed piece, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

IN THIS worn-out, fame-gobbling, invite-yourself-to-the-White-House, Botox-brained age, there is still a Mount Olympus. Its heights are remote, its atmosphere pure and sharp, and only the truly beautiful, whose physical discipline and grace springs from a well of fortitude and goodness, may dwell there.

The valley below is hazy with the dust of shattered marble bodies; the populace trots up from the valley to pick over the heaps with digging fingers. Sprung for a few hours from lives of quiet desperation, they crouch in the rubble like Gollum to troll for body parts, hoping to identify the smashed-up loins of governors, of talk show hosts, to lick the blood of tortured dogs from the torso of an athlete fresh from jail; these shards of former greatness are grabbed up for nothing and sold on Ebay at a four hundred percent profit. On the way to the marketplace, these citizen tabloid-texters jam the brain of anyone sentient enough to stare at a flat-screen device, serving up “billions and billions” of McRumors (Super-Sized!), Starbucks-jazzed versions of versions of what someone once thought might have been the truth, and these are, magically, catapulted into Hard Copy by crackerjack phalanxes of gossip brokers (you know who you are) in fine silk shirts, nice people who would never crack their own fingernails in rubble, but who make piles of money off it anyway. Only minor physical injury—perhaps a bad knee— is dull enough for the brokers to leave it alone. Die in a high-speed car chase with paparazzi, as Princess Diana did, and the goddess becomes food.

The frenzy never stops.

There is still, today, in this age of American Idolatry and Sycophancy, one true god left standing on Olympus. His name is Tiger Woods, and his message to us is simple. You can read it on his website. He’s telling the world something the Ancient Greeks knew very well: The gods are only our own wish fulfillment, which means they are just more gifted, beautiful, and more disciplined versions of the flawed, yearning, basically ordinary people that all of us are. They can be jealous, adulterous, fickle. They R Us, writ large.

Tiger fills the god bill: He’s a prodigy who exponentially fulfilled his early potential, never taking for granted the glow of the full sun of what will be a very long career. His stony, beautiful visage intimidates competitors. His discipline rivals that of a monk. His dignity is oceanic, his privacy legendary. On the People Magazine level, his racial history is intriguingly ambiguous, and his children are as photogenic as the baby imp Hermes, god of travelers “and all who live by their wits.”

Tiger Woods is Other. He is not the feared, nightmare Other of our prejudices, the dehumanized Other who in an earlier time might have been lynched, mirror of our own depravity. He is not found in horrific dreams of a terrorist Other who blows airplanes out of the sky.

He is Yin to that Yang. He is our aspiration package. Our American Dream. Looking at him, we hope that humanity can be good. That a human can be strong. That a man can achieve something beyond even the promise of his staggering talent.

We need him. The Greeks needed their gods. But there are differences. Zeus, the King of Gods, was a manic womanizer who makes Tiger Woods, whatever transgressions he may have committed, look like the Dalai Lama. Zeus’s wife, Hera, blithely destroyed her rivals, mortal or divine. Did she ever stop drying her nails long enough to rescue Zeus from a Cadillac Escalade with a club, the symbol of her husband’s divinity?

Hey, in the sin department, Tiger hovers at a seventh grade level. Pretty mediocre. Is our culture so sick, so glutted from gorging on the flat abs of celebrities that we fail to miss the point of a solo car crash in the middle of the night, a golf club, and a few facial lacerations?

Tiger, for all his power as an athlete, is what we make of him. That is his weakness, his Achilles’ heel, to borrow from another tale of Ancient Greece. Like an ordinary person who feels—imagine!—actual pain, he speaks plaintively, and with staggering understatement on his website: “I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week, my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives.”

It would be less painful if we believed in those fictional gods, who cannot feel, into whose perfect, naked chests we could hurl the darts of our aspirations and our basest desires. But we’re done with that. We can’t reverse the clock of history. We’re left with real people, people who cry and bleed as we do, even if their success tempts us to believe otherwise.

Tiger Woods has asked us to judge him only on his golf game and to afford him and his family some privacy. Anyone who dishonors that request is something less than human. Gossip mavens, go find a criminal to hound. A little dignity, America. Is it so hard?

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