Wednesday, August 24, 2016

American Personality Types

I am an admirer of David Brooks, one of the regular opinion writers for the New York Times.  He used to be the token “conservative” on that paper’s editorial page, but he is so disgusted with Donald Trump that he appears to have abandoned partisan representation and political advocacy altogether to become a one-man Greek chorus of generalized lamentation.  Though I frequently agree with Brooks, it is not actually his opinions that attract me.  I find there are more ideas per square column inch in one of his essays than in any other part of the paper.  Very often these are other people’s ideas—always scrupulously credited—gathered from his impressive weekly reading.  Many years ago a cynical senior colleague, anticipating my tenure review, gave me what he considered sound advice.  There are two kinds of professors, he said: those who read books and those who write books.  Neither the advice, nor the bizarre intellectual aberration in which it was based, escaped me.

            One of Brooks’s recent columns is entitled “Is Our Country as Good as Our Athletes Are? In it he confronts a widely shared and often articulated sense of “American malaise” with the outstanding success of America’s athletes in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro.  That our country faces repeated humiliations, that we are in economic decline, that we “don’t win anymore” are propositions central to Donald Trump’s campaign.  “Yet when you watch the Olympics, we don’t seem like some sad-sack country in terminal decline,” wrote Brooks.  “If anything, the coverage gets a little boring because we are always winning!  And the winners have such amazingly American stories and personality types (Biles, Ledecky, and, yes, Lochte).”

            Brooks’s essay was published, I believe, on August 19, by which time we knew, or could have known, some of the precise details of the  “amazingly American” personality type Ryan Lochte, the famous swimmer, exhibits.  After partying all night Lochte and some of his team-mates were returning to their billets in the Olympic Village when their cabbie stopped at a gas station to refuel.  The passengers took advantage of the pit stop to visit the toilet.  One or more of them exercised, noisily, the drunken frat-boy privilege of vandalizing bathrooms, breaking furnishings, and peeing on the results.  The armed security guards at the gas station detained the incontinent revelers.  There was the matter of reparations. Much of the episode was captured on closed-circuit television.

           The account of the gas-station stop given by Lochte—perhaps one should say accounts in recognition of the considerable narrative evolution—was that he and his mates had been robbed at gunpoint by criminals dressed in police uniforms.  The gunmen had relieved the swimmers of their wallets.  This was a bald-faced lie apparently invented by Lochte but, sad to say, supported by at least some of his team-mates.  It was also a gross, injurious insult to the Brazilian hosts of the games.  That American Olympians are world-class athletes is implicit in their having been chosen from large numbers of talented competitors to represent our country.  That they should also be world-class jerks and liars is a matter of individual ethical choice deeply shameful to any, should they still exist, so old-fashioned as to think there might be more to sportsmanship than winning.

            What about the politicians who propose to be our leaders?  Are they more the political equivalents of a Simone Biles or of a Ryan Lochte?  Donald Trump is such a fabulist that one hardly knows where to begin.  He got to know Vladimir Putin “very well,” though he later had to allow he had never actually met him.  He was an apparently unique eye-witness to the festival reaction of large numbers of Muslims in Jersey City as the Twin Towers crashed to the earth.  One of Mr. Lochte’s claims was that although one of the robber-cops put a gun to his head, he refused to “comply”.   Thus did he refute Wayne La Pierre.  The real answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an--attitude.  So far as I know Mr. Trump has not sought to exemplify his personal courage with reports of his indifference to bad guys with guns, but it is surely only a matter of time.

            However, his adversary Hillary Clinton has stolen a march on him here.  By now her famous account of her dramatic arrival at Tuzla Airport in Bosnia has gained canonical status in the World Anthology of Greatest Fibs.  “I remember landing under sniper fire,” she said.  “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”  The ceremonial arrivals of famous visitors tend to attract even more elaborate video coverage than the bathrooms of Brazilian convenience stores.  What greeted Mrs. Clinton upon her arrival was a fawning welcoming committee including the obligatory schoolgirl with a bouquet of flowers.   Hillary Clinton might appropriately hang her head down, though not out of fear of sniper fire.

           Mr. Lochte eventually pleaded guilty to “over exaggeration,” but that was to misunderestimate the gravity of his offense.  He embarrassed our entire nation.  But we must get back to David Brooks’s implied question.  Are those who present themselves for presidential leadership as good as the athletes who present themselves as our representatives in sport?  One has to give the nod to the athletes.  Only some of them are liars.



  1. With respect to Lochte, I was struck by how avidly the press -- and now the Professor -- jumped on the ugly American interpretation of events. I don't doubt that an intoxicated Lochte behaved badly, but I don't know that he was quite the monster he's been made out to be. Consider a few facts:

    (1) Not only did Lochte's story keep changing, so did the story of the Brazilians. Apparently the Americans were never in the bathroom, and the bathroom vandalism story was fabricated from whole cloth by the police. Rather, the Americans found the bathroom locked so they walked around the side of the building and urinated in the ally. Someone complained and Lochte pulled an advertising poster from the side of the building. For this, the Brazilians drew guns.

    (2) From the video, this appears to have been a rather mundane convenience store/gas station. Yet it had its own armed security force. What does that say about Brazil?

    (3) Matt Lauer kept saying to Lochte that he and the Brazilians were just trying to "make a deal" so the Americans could avoid the police. Well, when the other guy is pointing a gun at you, that's not my idea of free and fair negotiations. I'll bet it felt like a robbery or shakedown.

    I would say there was wrong to go around here. I was more embarrassed by the knee jerk anti-Americanism of our own press than by Lochte. As for Trump and Clinton, I don't want either one of them to be President. For what it's worth, I read that Lochte is a Clinton supporter.

  2. By the way, I know how to spell "alley." I just can't type.

    1. Dear Princeton 77:
      Thanks for engaging with the blog and taking the time to reply. Having stated my opinion and heard yours, I shall argue no further. I was myself rather amazed by the spirited nature of Lochte's bad press, but I don't want to deny myself a rare opportunity to be among the majority. Best wishes, JF

  3. Hello, Professor, nice to read your blog. On a side note about Sec. Clinton: She has been to Bosnia and back, and then some, for humanitarian reasons, when she could so easily not do anything, and so few people have done as much. It's not easy being in the public eye--with great fame comes great risk, of course. I'm sorry to see the slips and trips, and yet so admire anyone who wants to try a hand at great work. Here's a piece that's interesting:
    Thanks as always for your posts.