fame privacy public values private earnings

tiger woods media

The Fame Game

"Is it any wonder I reject you first?" -- David Bowie

Two big news events over the Thanksgiving holiday showed, to my mind, how truly Bent our society has become. First we have Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the gate-crashers at President Obama’s state dinner. Now, I am a big fan of Houdini, Penn and Teller, and all those who manage to get in and out of things that seem impenetrable, so I do admire their technical achievement. However, it turns out that the Salahis, like the parents of the balloon boy, are relentless self-promoters who have, nevertheless, nothing to promote. Pop culture has coined a term for this sort of person: “fame whores.” They hope to achieve sufficient name-recognition to make them viable candidates for a reality show, which will secure their fortunes without their ever having to do anything actually... worth... doing. I mean, what the heck did Jon Gosselin do for a living, before he became the gruesome public maggot he is today? And what, in the name of all that is sensible, is the deal with the Kardashians?

The other recent News Palooza is the Tiger Woods incident. In this, my sympathy is 100% with Mr. Woods. That is not because he’s a good person, a competent driver or a faithful spouse. He may be none of those things — but I wouldn’t know about that. (I have no interest in knowing about it, either, but I guess that's just me.) I've heard of Tiger Woods because he’s a great golfer, arguably the best ever. Tiger Woods has consistently asserted his right to privacy — and I admire him for that. He’s not going to tell us what happened in his driveway the other night, because that is not our business. But of course, not everyone believes that. Dave Zirin of The Nation, for example, thinks this is a good moment to scrutinize Woods. Zirin insists, rather self-servingly, that he isn't motivated by the current hoopla — but because of Woods’s extremely lucrative promotional agreements with corporations that do bad things.

Such daft reasoning gets to the heart of the sort of collective insanity we’re dealing with here. Chevron, a corporation that is in bed with Burma’s brutal ruling junta, overlooks rape and forced labor and dumps toxic waste all over the place, sponsors Woods’s “Chevron World Challenge,” a prestigious golf tournament, the proceeds of which go to the Tiger Woods Foundation, which offers a “development program for youth 8-17, [emphasizing] ...character education, volunteer service and career exploration.” That seems OK. Instead of taking Chevron’s nasty money, Zirin would prefer Woods to take nice money from, say, Ben & Jerry’s. But if he did, would Chevron stop doing all those bad things? And anyway, I suspect that a megastar of Tiger Woods's caliber is out of Ben & Jerry's price range.

That's the thing, you see: why are we willing to pay Tiger Woods so much money? It’s not his fault; he’s a golfer. He’d play just as brilliantly for a million as a hundred million. The money trail is long and complex. But, enough people have to want to buy the widgets to make it worth paying ungodly amounts for Tiger to promote them. The real reason lies with us, the consumers, and what passes in our minds for a sense of reality.

See how weird this is? On the one hand we’re eager to bestow fame on losers who have no earthly claim to it. On the other, those who are justly famous for their own achievements have to struggle (and often fail) to keep a private life that the media is hell-bent on stealing from them. The golf tournaments ought to be public — and also the endorsements. But, unless we’re golf fans, or exposed investors, those things just don’t seem to excite us. But just let us get ahold of some juicy gossip! Yesterday, Tiger, his wife, and his two alleged mistresses were the four top-searched names on Yahoo! Just because a person is in the public eye for some extraordinary aspect of his life, should he relinquish any right to privacy? James Baldwin once wrote that only people who had never been famous could ever imagine that they would want to be in that condition. I don’t know where that leaves the Gosselins and the Salahis, but it is altogether clear to me that our society has lost sight of what things ought to be public, and what things ought to be private.

Golf isn’t the most apt example, because it is a relatively expensive game to practice. Games like football and basketball, however, tellingly demonstrate the pitfalls of our cult of fame. There are only so many spots in the NFL, for example. Competition for those spots is intense. By the time a talented young player gets into a college program (which, in a "major sport" like football, is really a professional franchise) he’s already suffered a concussion or two and taken a dangerous amount of steroids. Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days” is the anthem for the millions of men who never made it in the game, and never learned to do much of anything else.

Does it have to be that way? Rather than spend every free hour watching the games, and buying all the beer, viagra, power drills and monster trucks that sponsor the games, we could be out there playing the sport (or pursuing the art) of our choice! You don’t have to be world class; there’s a team that’ll have you, or a project you can learn how to do. You could get in shape, learn a skill, build some self-respect!

Ahh, but we don’t really have the time to do those things, do we? Not til we retire, anyway, IF we ever get the chance to do that. Lest it be thought I’m getting too far off-topic here: if no one has anything else to say about the sports and entertainment news, I’d like to say a few words about the Single Tax. There is one other very important area where we have lost sight of what ought to be public, and what ought to be private. Every penny of wages we make until mid-April, on the average, goes to pay for some level of gummint. We complain bitterly about that, and we should. Meanwhile, though, we hope to pocket the value of our land, when it increases! Yet we landowners have done nothing — have we? — to create that value. It comes from the presence of the community around us, and the services the community provides. We want to privatize what ought to be public — and we’re compelled to fork over to the public what ought to be our private earnings!

Seems to me that if we were to reverse this grossly backwards economic situation, we would go far toward making sense of other seemingly insame and intractable problems. If nothing else, wages would go up, which means we might have a bit more free time. Not so tired at the end of the day, we’d be less tempted to sit staring at the antics of Gosselins and Kardashians. With a bit more time and energy, we might be more inclined to DO things, and less inclined to merely watch them. The endorsement of people like Tiger Woods wouldn’t be worth so incredibly much, because we’d have the time and money to make our own decisions about shoes and cars. Maybe we’d even learn to leave Tiger the heck alone, once the tournament is over.

Lindy Davies, December 25, 2009

Also see:

Correlated: happiness, material goods, and ecological footprints

Tax Deal Signed between US and Swiss, UK and Liechtenstein

Alaska: Land of Contradictions

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