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.