Don’t hate yourself because, having tuned into the Tiger Woods drama and the Salahis comedy you’ve found that you can’t tune them out. And don’t blame CNN or TMZ or even the New York Times for making the yarns as irresistible as an open bag of Doritos. There’s a reason these two stories appeal to us and why—even though we’ve been lectured that we really shouldn’t be paying any attention to the unfolding spectacles—we keep coming back for more.
Our obsession with the Woods story is easily decoded. In a 1997 GQ profile of Woods, Charles P. Pierce documented that the 21-year-old phenom was as normal off the golf course as he was exceptional on it. That is, he liked telling “dick” jokes. He liked scoring with the ladies. In a Dec. 1 post, Pierce makes explicit what he made implicit in his original features. Back then, Woods had a reputation as a “chaser” and a “hound.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a sportsman being a chaser or a hound, of course. I don’t know of any well-adjusted, young heterosexual man who would have conducted himself differently than the bachelor Woods allegedly did.Like it or not, lots of women find famous athletes attractive.
I’m sure Charles Darwin could explain it.
In the past, Bo Belinsky, Joe Namath, and Wilt Chamberlain—just to name a few Don Juans from field and court—made womanizing an integral part of their personas. But for business reasons—Buick, Nike, Gatorade, Gillette, EA Sports, and Accenture being among them—Woods decided to exfoliate from his public image of all things base, carnal, and even personal. As Pierce writes in his post, “The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers.”
Given how desperately we want to believe in a human god, it didn’t take much peddling from Team Tiger for us to accept Woods as a modern deity. With every new tournament victory, every new product endorsement, his divinity grew. His marketers made him a symbol of tolerance and brotherhood, and his father, Earl Woods, spoke gibberish about his son being a creature of destiny. Getting married and having children only added to Woods’ marketability. I’m divine and monogamous and the center of a happy nuclear family. And we ate it up.
So now that the “real” Woods has been revealed as a wild bone-daddy who behaves more like your out-of-work, alcoholic brother-in-law than an object of worship, we feel cheated. Aside from the hundreds of millions he’s earned from golf tournaments and endorsements, turns out he’s a lot like the rest of us. Our hunger for salacious news about him isn’t necessarily about voyeurism. We’re embarrassed by the gap between who we believed Woods to be and who he really is; and, having put Woods on that pedestal, we want to bring him down where he belongs—with the rest of us sinners. We’re like the kid who, upon learning that there is no Santa Claus, conducts a wide-ranging investigation to determine how such a fraud was perpetrated on him. And we’ll keep consuming Woods news until our picture of him more closely conforms with reality. We love to crown kings and cultivate messiahs. And then kill them.
“I’m human and I’m not perfect,” Woods said in his post-crash communiqué to his public. “I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect,” he reiterates in his second communiqué, published today, in which he confesses his “transgressions.” Gee, Mr. Woods, where did we ever get the idea that you were perfect? Oh, from you!
Of the Salahis, who elbowed their way into Obama’s first state dinner, who can blame them for trying to raise their social status by gaming the system rather than “earning” it the old-fashioned way the official invitees did? It’s hard to become a billionaire, hold political office, make Hollywood blockbusters, serve as a captain of industry, do time in the diplomatic corps, occupy a top spot in the press, or write best-sellers. If a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls—and dressing the part—can win you the temporary privileges of high Washington status, where’s the shame?
If Tareq and Michaele Salahi are freaks for conniving a path into the White House, then what do we make of the hordes who jockey for position in the workplace, in society, and on the playground, and who don’t always play by the rules? Prior to his fall, damn few of us were conceited enough to imagine that we were Tiger Woods. But we all recognize a bit of the Salahis in our day-to-day conduct: our striving, our fudging, our expensive attempts to dress for success, our endless bragging and other attention-grabbing, our attempts to “friend-up,” and finally our obsessing about our children’s social status (Right private school? Right social manner? Right social network?).
We can’t get enough of the Salahis because they do in maximum what we do in miniature every day.
“Consider the toxic power of humiliation. Humiliation is a wound inflicted upon the beast’s status picture of himself, upon the validity of his standing within the boundaries of his own fiction absolute.”—Tom Wolfe. Thanks to Hanna Rosin for pitching one-thirdof an inning of relief when I needed help. Also, I know that the Pierce story is now posted on the Esquire site, but trust me, it was originally published in GQ. Pierce is a Slate contributor. Send your pitches (no, not story ideas) to firstname.lastname@example.org and dig my fungo via my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Slate V: Is Tiger Feeling Lucky Today?