Stop Feedin' Off Him

Sam Tanenhaus writes:

More than ever before the celebrity, in particular the sports celebrity, is trapped in a transactional relationship with his fans, who regard him less as a person than as a commodity an enormously skilled competitor on the field, but off it just another pitchman selling himself on television and in back lit displays in airport

Quite right.

Though I normally write about political controversy at The Daily Beast, my column suggesting that sports fans would be better off ignoring the personal behavior of Tiger Woods -- I told you so -- teed off more readers than any other argument I've pitched.

The rough counterargument is that Mr. Woods ceded any right to privacy in his personal life by voluntarily appearing as a highly paid spokesman in advertisements. As Kashmir Hill wrote at True/Slant, "Woods has profited mightily from people’s fascination with him. Having accepted over a billion dollars for the marketing and selling of his personal brand, it’s hard for Woods to now make the argument that his
brand is entitled to privacy, or for anyone to argue that he is not a public figure."

Is anyone else alarmed that conventional wisdom now treats human beings as though they're synonymous with the "personal brand"? Or that defining someone as a "public figure" is meant to imply, without further argument, that we're entitled to investigate, publicize, and discuss the most intimate details of their personal lives?

Mr. Woods isn't arguing that his brand is entitled to privacy, he is saying that he and his family are entitled to it. Forgive me for putting it so crudely, but anyone who argues that celebrities cede all privacy rights when their private behavior conflicts with the image they cultivate had better be prepared to defend it when someone asks Mr. Woods how often he masturbates. I'd much prefer to abet the illusion that the men who fill my flat screen as I eat dinner all take cold showers.

The reigning fetish right now in American culture is consumer rights. A famous man too weak or arrogant or immature or sought after to resist the temptation of extramarital sex should be privately understood as a disappointment and a tragedy. Mr. Woods stands to lose an enraged, devastated wife, and almost certainly damaged the future happiness of his children (all awful outcomes that the ongoing media frenzy exacerbates).

Perhaps it is only human, like all things cruel and fallen, that we treat it as a spectacle -- that we're fascinated because "we thought we knew Tiger," though we ought to know better, and disabuse ourselves of these celebrity illusions. If we're determined to ignore the tragedy and embrace the spectacle, however, must we simultaneously pretend that this nosiness is our due as a member of the Gillette advertisement watching public? As though we'd have passed on the five-blade razor if only we'd known the spokesman's dark secret? "His skin is smooth, sure, but unbeknowst to the razor executives he cheats on his wife at every opportunity. Ergo it's Schick for me."

Of course, the car-commercial-watching public has even less claim to the truth about the pitch man: an athlete selling razors owes it to us to shave with them. The guys selling Nike shoes actually demonstrate that the product is capable of performing at the highest levels. Whereas it is immaculately obvious that if the Virgin Mary herself appeared in a commercial for the Cadillac Escalade, her lack of sin wouldn't signify better cornering, enhanced reliability, or five-star performance in side-crash test collisions.

Anyone who let a "Tiger drives a Cadillac" advertisement affect his car purchase was being willfully ignorant, or else enjoys driving what a famous athlete drives -- that is to say, he was a willing participant in a transaction, and he benefited from it. The way this affair is being covered, you'd think that America is instead filled with helpless-in-the-face-of-pr consumer-bots, people too blinded by highly paid image managers to see that Brand Tiger Woods was a creation, not a real person, and so conscientious that they would've bought their razors and cars from the Dalai Lama but for that cad golfer whose duplicitous brand management convinced them that he, rather than his Holiness, was the most moral spokesman in the McWorld.

Our orgy of anger and schadenfreude when the famous fall betrays self-contempt. We enjoy feeding off the talent, image and charisma of celebrities, just like the guys in the prison yard who idolized Cool Hand Luke before they turned on him: Dazzled by exceptional qualities, we indulge in the prideful illusion that humans aren't fallen after all; persisting in this folly, we are more than sorely disappointed when human flaws emerge, as they inevitably do -- their appearance throws our naivete in our face, and we react all too often by punishing the sinner not only for his transgression, but to avenge or distract from how foolish we feel.

Folks in America once read and even discussed popular fiction. It isn't a time I know much about, as it preceded my birth by many years, and I don't want to romanticize it. But it occurs to me that we'd all be better off if our national characters were undeniably fictional, rather than whatever senses of celebrities we feel like we know. By filtering our discussions about infidelity, ambition, love, moral behavior, and achievement through these constructed phantasms, we condemn ourselves to inquiries into human matters conducted without the benefit of human beings.