Technologically, as all of my fellow new car buyers know, the American society has been evolving in leaps and bounds. Intellectually and morally, however, we seem to be sprinting in place. At best.
We now are down to zero news outlets that are respected by substantially all of the public – zero reporters, zero anchors, zero newspapers, zero television networks. Our society has become ideologically factionalized, and each faction has separated prominent media outlets into one of two categories – (a) the reputable, go-to sources and (b) the sources worthy of mockery and ridicule. If a story is reported in the first set of outlets, it is presumptively believed; if reported in the second set of outlets, it is presumptively “fake news.” Notably, while we are divided as to which outlet should be placed in which category, we are unified in this one respect: if we learn about a report and we can’t say that it comes from a source that shares our bias, we don’t trust it. Indeed, a toxic mix of mistrust and cynicism has now become the pre-dominant American ethos. To me, that is worthy of a Greek tragedy.
I was thinking about the above state of affairs this past Monday night while watching the made-for-TV spectacle known as the Home Run Derby. The Derby is played the night before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and involves eight of the top home-run hitters in the game. In each round of the competition, the brutes are given four minutes to bash as many balls over the fence as possible, and if they hit at least two homers over 440 feet, they get 30 extra seconds to smash the horsehide. This year’s winner was Aaron Judge, a rookie from a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who seems to be an all-around great player with a phenomenal ability to hit home runs (he already has 30). Oh yeah, I almost forgot –this freak is 6’7” and 282 pounds and his body seems perfectly proportioned. Plus, when he’s interviewed, he comes across as perfectly nice and humble. In short, this guy is right out of central casting: as in, “Cast me a kid who talks and looks like Mickey Mantle, except that he is bigger and stronger – sort of a humbler version of Babe Ruth, but an even better athlete. And make sure that like the Babe and the Mick, he plays for the most iconic franchise in all of sports.” Commentators have compared Aaron Judge to a comic strip superhero, and after watching him hit literally 3.9 miles worth of home runs on Monday night (including four balls over 500 feet), I can now fully appreciate the hype.
But here’s the thing. Superheroes are beloved by virtually everyone other than arch villains and their minions. And I’m not sure our society as a whole is willing to embrace anybody these days. As discussed, we won’t embrace a newsman. We certainly won’t embrace a politician. And I don’t even think we’re prepared to embrace an entertainer. Such is the price of living in a culture where mistrust and cynicism reign supreme.
Maybe Aaron Judge takes steroids. Or beats his girlfriend. Or votes for the “wrong” party. Or drives drunk. Or maybe it’s just the old Stones lyric that “He can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” One way or another, we’ve become so cynical about people that we refuse innocently to embrace those in our midst with the greatest potential star power. Instead, we hold back our affection, convinced that at some point these apparent “superheroes” will be revealed for what they truly are – deeply flawed, and perhaps even more profoundly screwed up than the rest of us. After all, doesn’t every “star” eventually show up on the cover of the National Enquirer looking like a zombie and acting like a pig?
Part of the problem is traceable to three of the domains I mentioned above – our technology, our media, and our ideological divides. Today, it seems, pretty much everything is captured on tape, and there’s always a media outlet to report it. Public figures can’t expect privacy. They’re always under a microscope. And how many human beings, let alone “superstars,” can withstand microscopic scrutiny? Plus, we now live in an ideological hot house, in which anyone with an opportunity to affect the public political discourse is expected to do so, lest we start to perceive them as vacuous or self-absorbed. Then again, once they do announce themselves as people with actual social and political agendas, a large swath of the country will turn on them for being a troglodyte (i.e., a conservative) or a commie (i.e., a liberal).
I wonder if Michael Jordan would be so universally beloved if he came on the scene today. Or Kate Hepburn. Or Ben Franklin. Or even George Washington. Cynicism and mistrust are irresistible objects, and I’m not sure we have any immovable forces to take them on.
But you never know. Maybe Aaron Judge can prove me wrong. That smiling Goliath effortlessly bashed baseballs and the competition into oblivion, and yet when it was time for him to cash in (i.e., get interviewed by an adoring TV commentator), he refused the interview unless he was allowed to share the spotlight with his batting practice pitcher. Aw shucks America, this farm boy is perfect. He’s begging us to let him – to let ANYONE – into our collective hearts while we still have a chance. We’ve already decided we can’t all agree on the need to protect our climate from destruction. Can we at least agree on the value of celebrating a humble man-child from Linden, California?