I love America. I do – I think it’s, on the whole, a wonderful place, with it’s heart mostly in the right place, and I am happy to live here, even when it occasionally makes me want to tear my hair out. But there is much about America that drives me crazy, although me being me, it tends to be less specific failures of government or culture, and more larger trends in our peculiar national identity. For example, I hate America’s bizzaro guilty work ethic – I hate that 9 to 5 actually means 8:30 to 7:00, lest you be seen as insufficiently devoted to your work, or that vacation is seen as a weakness, and travel as something that is such an unnecessary luxury that you might well only really do it once, for a big event, like a honeymoon (I think that America has every right to lose its status as the most powerful country in the world, if our populace so consistently refuses to recognize that we are just one country out of many, with one of many ways of doing things.) But perhaps most of all, I am mystified by our culture’s deep and lasting love of creating and worshiping impossible heroes.
This has come to light most clearly with the recent (well, not that recent, I’m a little behind) scandals that revealed Tiger Woods to be not the perfect man, but rather a man who committed the sin of taking advantage of the power and money and fame that came from his athletic ability, and had numerous affairs with various women, cheating on his wife and family. Now, I am not going to defend this, as I have no interest in doing so. But what I will say is that what I find most interesting about this particular story is that America as a whole seemed to be so collectively shocked that an exemplary golfer turned out to be un-exemplary in other respects.
Which brings me to the X-Files.
Yep, that’s right, the X-Files, the brilliant and culty sci-fi hit that ran for nine years and that my nerdy fourteen-year-old self was so madly in love with that I once missed an episode and cried (hey, in my defence, there wasn’t no Tivo back then, or TV online – either you watched it, live, on the television, or went through the elaborate process of setting the VCR and taped it, or you HAD TO WAIT FOR THE RERUNS. It’s true, kiddies, it was a dark time then). In any case, the brilliance of this show cannot be overstated – in addition to its cadre of creepy-crawlies, it had moments of very deft philosophy. My favorite of these moments, I think, came in an episode that found Mulder and Scully standing trapped on a tiny island in the middle of a lake, which happened to be inhabited by a sort of loch ness monster. But that’s not important. What was important was Mulder’s response to Scully’s assertion that he is much like Captain Ahab, the full text of which I will now copy from the blog of someone even nerdier than me:
MULDER: You know, it’s interesting you should say that, because I’ve always wanted a peg leg. It’s a boyhood thing I never grew out of. I’m not being flippant, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I mean, if you have a peg leg or hooks for hands then maybe it’s enough to simply keep on living. You know, bravely facing life with your disability. But without these things you’re actually meant to make something of your life, achieve something, earn a raise, wear a necktie. So if anything, I’m actually the antithesis of Ahab, because if I did have a peg leg, I’d quite possibly be more happy and more content not to be chasing after these creatures of the unknown.
I love this. Because he’s (well, the writers – Mulder is, much as it may break my heart, fictional) right. And the phenomenon he’s talking about here is almost the flipside of what happened with poor Tiger Woods. Because just as a peculiar disability like a peg-leg would indeed probably remove someone from the standards of achievement that apply to almost every fully functional American, Tiger Woods illustrates the opposite problem: by being exceptionally good at something, in this case playing golf, Tiger Woods was assumed to be exceptionally good at everything. In this case, being gifted at a sport seemed to remove Tiger Woods from the realm of being flawed or ‘only human’ and caused him to be held to a much higher standard. And when he proved himself to indeed be flawed, America’s sense of righteous betrayal was almost palpable.
But really, you cannot make perfect gods out of normal humans – even the Greeks knew that (hell, even their gods were deeply flawed messes). And there is something deeply peculiar about the concept that we, as a culture, reward the skills and talents of our most skilled and talented people by holding them to a freakishly high standard in all things (especially considering that the other way we reward skilled and talented people is with a whole lot of money, fame, and power. So basically, we are doing the equivalent of bringing someone to an overflowing banquet table, then punishing them if they take anything). And I think American culture as a whole would do well to realize that we are becoming a nasty two-headed beast, on the one side demanding that our heroes stay shining bastions of skill, abstention, fidelity, and modesty, while on the other voraciously devouring the magazines that sort through their garbage hoping to find the darkest secrets and the dirtiest smut. The only thing we seem to like more, ultimately, then creating our perfect heroes, is watching them fall.
Wait, why am I so tall? Oh look, it must be this soapbox I’m standing on here. Sorry about that – I’ll get down now.
And go get a peg leg.