There is an unfortunate propensity in America that is growing uglier by the day – a need to elevate one’s own sense of well-being through the dragging down of others.
What I mean is this – on some level, everyone has doubts about themselves, be it their character, intelligence, happiness, etc. No matter what we project, internally the human condition is one of self-doubt. It is this fact that makes schadenfreude – a German word meaning “pleasure derived from watching someone else’s misfortune” – so appealing; in essence, it’s a way to say “my life may be screwy, but I am no Lindsey Lohan.”
Our national infatuation with other people’s misery has a long history – but it is only in the last 15 years that it has become a growth industry. From humble beginnings – MTV’s “Real World” and a saucy Presidential affair, complete with audio tapes and “DNA” on a dress – the voyeuristic culture has grown.
Our technology has kept apace with this infatuation. Everyone – literally everyone over the age of 12 and under the age of 55, excluding the Amish – has a camera in his pocket. Most have video recorders. The idea that anyone known can do anything at all in public is now beyond quaint.
Think about who has gotten tagged by technology: Michael Phelps and the Bong; Mel Gibson and the baby mama; Tiger Woods and his “solid;” countless starlets and something silly in Vegas; a couple congressmen and their staffers or pages – it is an endless list. The combination of the two – a near limitless appetite for the misery of others and the technology for every person walking the street to capture it in real time – have made this big business.
And the internet gave it a home. Websites like the Drudge Report, TMZ (seriously, if you see your name and TMZ in the same sentence its time to move to Libya), and The Smoking Gun live on our need to rubberneck. Twitter gives intoxicated folly a place to connect with a national audience. Facebook opened the doors of our inner sanctum to any and all. The business of knowing other people’s business is big – and nothing is bigger than when that business is scandal.
Yesterday provided the latest example. Starting around 9 AM every college football fan – by attendance and viewership the second most popular sport in a sports-crazed country – was buzzing about the news: Jim Tressel had resigned at Ohio State. For the football uninitiated, Coach Tress has been about as successful as one can imagine over a period of 10 years, wining titles and games at a brisk clip. He was regarded as one of the best in the game.
But more than that, he wore his faith and his public character on his sleeveless vest – a fact that made his downfall a more spectacular event. In his 10 years at OSU Coach Tressel had a profound impact on hundreds of kids, raised and gave money to his school’s library and other charities, and met with hundreds – thousands – of soldiers and sick kids. He did all of these things because, in spite of whatever sins he may have committed, he was and is a good man at heart.
None of that matters anymore. His unethical conduct in one (or even a few) instances has rendered the whole a fraud. I disagree with this conclusion, but cannot deny the cautionary tale – in America, if you profess virtue, the un-virtuous cannot wait to tear you down to their level.
It is easy to understand why – “everybody does it” is as common a defense to most of our sins as innocence, and when you can prove there is no virtue in anyone it is easy to ignore the lack of virtue in oneself.
We have all given in to this impulse, and we will all do so again. But perhaps yesterday’s cautionary tale should be a different one: if the only argument you have to defend your actions is that the rest of the world is corrupt as well perhaps the best course is self improvement, rather than wallowing in collective mediocrity or worse.
I know that is likely a vain hope, but as I watched the coverage yesterday slide from relevant and factual to hyperventilating and nonsensical I was struck by what was really driving the story; it wasn’t outrage, or shock, or even disapproval – it was simply commercially driven schadenfreude. And in the end, doesn’t that say a lot more about our society than it does about any one individual?
There are lessons to be learned from the Tressel saga, to be sure. For the individual at the center it is the Nixonian truth – “it’s the cover up that gets you.” For society at large, it is this: if we resort to the lowest common denominator we will never be exceptional as a people or a nation.
In the words of my grandfather, “shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves?”
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