Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open again. He did it right after coming back from knee surgery, the recovery from which was still causing him pain. He did it after a must-make putt for birdie in regulation to force an 18-hole playoff. He did it by making yet another birdie putt when the score was still tied after the playoff. It was brilliant. He is awe-inspiring.
My husband and I have, from time to time, wondered aloud why we tend not to root for the underdog against Tiger Woods. We decided it was from sheer admiration – we are grateful to Tiger for creating in himself someone to admire. Of course, we appreciate anyone working hard to beat a statistical favorite, as Rocco Mediate did. Statistics don’t describe individuals, and individuals must always fight. On the other hand – watching someone as accomplished as Woods is as close as an atheist will ever come to worship. He is just inspiring. Inspiration is food for the soul.
Now, contrast this attitude with that shown by David Brooks in his recent New York Times column on Woods’s victory. The column is a blatant demonstration of sneering at and denigrating the good because it is good.
Brooks appears to start off well. The first one-and-a-half paragraphs of his column describes Woods in positive terms. But as the column progresses, terms commonly used pejoratively creep in. “Frozen.” “Stone-faced.” Then it gets a little worse, as Brooks starts to employ caricature (emphasis added below):
As an adult, [Woods] is famously self-controlled. His press conferences are a string of carefully modulated banalities.
He’s become the beau ideal for golf-loving corporate America, the personification of mental fortitude.
Now clearly, Brooks recognizes Woods’s greatness, because Brooks’s column is also filled with unambiguously positive descriptors of Woods, just a few of which are: “focused,” “embodiment of immortal excellence,” “exemplar of mental discipline,” “precosity” and “athletic prowess.” But Brooks gives with one hand, while with the other he taketh away. For example:
[Woods] achieves, they say, perfect clarity, tranquility and flow. We’re talking about somebody who is the primary spokesman for Buick, and much of the commentary about him is on the subject of his elevated spiritual capacities.
Here, Brooks notes others’ glowing praise for Woods — and then belittles the praisers for their failure to note that Woods is a highly-paid spokesman for a car company. The implication: you can’t use elevated terms to praise someone who trades the value of his good name and reputation for money. Snarky enough, but then Brooks does it again:
The ancients were familiar with physical courage and the priests with moral courage, but in this over-communicated age when mortals feel perpetually addled, Woods is the symbol of mental willpower. He is, in addition, competitive, ruthless, unsatisfied by success and honest about his own failings.
This paragraph reminds me of the way Ayn Rand defined the conjunction “but” in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. To paraphrase, Rand explained that the conjunction “but” was to be used prior to introducing information that contradicts what would ordinarily be inferred from what was previously communicated. The first sentence of Brooks’s paragraph implies that Woods is something positive, a throw-back to an era where men recognized greatness. But the second sentence is clearly meant as an insult, as a “but,” because Brooks assumes (probably correctly, for most Times readers) that the column’s readers share his appraisal of “competitive,” “ruthless” and “unsatisfied” as derogatory terms.
Perhaps, by describing Woods’s obvious excellence (usually through others’ eyes), Brooks is hoping his readers will credit him with an ability to recognize and appreciate greatness. Perhaps Brooks is hoping his readers will miss the snide swipes at the character and virtues that made Tiger Woods’s accomplishment possible, and credit Brooks with graciousness instead of metaphysical sour grapes.
Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps Brooks is counting on his readers sharing his disdain for achievement. Because the first sentence of the column’s two-sentence final paragraph begins:
You can like this model or not.
I submit that the one thing a writer is aware of is that the last words penned are the most powerful in fixing in readers’ minds the message the writer wishes to convey. The message in Brooks’s last words? Whether you admire virtue and achievement is a mere matter of taste.
My last words to Mr. Brooks: speak for yourself. To anyone considering Tiger Woods’s victory at the U.S. Open, I would ask, rather, “What’s not to like?”