Disposable Gods

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Read the tabs — watch the tube — if you want to know how a society that has lost its religiosity can still engage with the deities. The eerily appropriate term “celebrity worship” is evidence of the extent to which we’ve improved on Greek culture: We’ve invented disposable gods.

Tiger, Tiger . . .

I take our media obsession with Tiger Woods far more seriously than I do the specifics I’ve so far managed to learn, against my will, on the status of his marriage, facial injuries and mistress count. And the sad thing isn’t the lonely get-a-lifers who eagerly consume the gossip and titillation, but the industry that feeds them, that creates the pseudo-immortality of fame in the first place.

“Tiger lifted up his shirt . . . so that the troopers could discern if he had any additional injuries after his SUV crash.” Ah, our national right to know, as purveyed by hollywoodgossip.com. “The meeting took place four days after the post-Thanksgiving car wreck that blew the lid off Tiger’s cheating, one of the biggest sex scandals in sports history.”

“The Greek gods may seem all-too human to us.” This is how the phenomenon is described in a classical lit syllabus from Grand Valley State University. “They get angry over little insults; they let their lusts carry them away . . . they engage in petty feuds with one another. . . . Moreover, the Greek gods appear to humans and mingle with them, helping or hindering them and at times, making love with them.”

I’m starting to fear that Western civilization, of which the United States of America is the alleged crown jewel, has tumbled over a psychotic edge.

Even as we push forward technologically, we’re thrashing about ever more desperately in spiritual stagnation. Tiger Woods, the latest demigod to fall to earth, to bleed blood instead of ichor, is a symptom of something we need to address collectively. We’re at a cul-de-sac of empty cultural values. I don’t think we can go much further without some sort of spiritual renewal, a reconnecting . . . with our fellow humans, our planet, ourselves.

Poor Brit Hume, the former Fox News anchorman, may have been trying to say something like this when he suddenly went on a proselytizing rant over the airwaves: “He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’”

Start with ignorance and hubris, stir in a huge dollop of irony, and you, too, can make a fool of yourself just like Brit Hume. What I hear in Brit’s faux-advice (you don’t mind if I call you Brit, do you?) are all the symptoms of celebrity worship, beginning with the fact that we’re always on a first-name basis with our disposable deities.

I also begin to discern a larger agenda at work here. Our Tabloid Olympus does indeed serve a higher purpose, or perhaps a variety of higher purposes. Remember when the Bush administration gave us a celebrity enemy named Saddam, whom we were encouraged to hate on a first-name basis? This was, of course, in lieu of actual (rational) foreign policy.

And consider: Just as many if not most of our celebrity heroes turn out, like Tiger, to have flies that buzz secretly around their pristine personas, Saddam — the “Saddam brand,” you might say — had an opposite sort of flaw: no WMD, no link to Osama. But he served his purpose anyway, just as Tiger continues to do.

Whereas the creation of the Greek gods was a collective cultural enterprise, slowly evolving over the millennia in the embellishments of poets and storytellers, the creation of disposable gods is a sophisticated, cynicism-steeped business operation. The turnaround is quick and merciless.

AT&T and Accenture, two of Tiger’s monster corporate sponsors, were quick to cut their ties with him as soon as the flies started publicly buzzing. These non-sports companies had no use for him beyond his sterling reputation. However, as a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel points out, Woods’ sports-focused sponsors, such as Nike (Greek goddess of victory!) and trading-card company Upper Deck, have retained their ties with him and publicly expressed support.

How nice, but perhaps something deeper is driving their loyalty. The Sentinel quotes a professor in the University of Central Florida’s Sports Business Management program: “Nike’s got warehouses full of golf clubs. Upper Deck has tons of autographed items from him. They’re not going to give up on him.”

And at last we get closer to our One True (and non-disposable) God, whose name is Mammon.