Crouching Tiger, hidden ghosts

nailemIf I may indulge in an awful pun, Tiger ain't out of the woods yet. Aside from our unhealthy interest in the cover pictures of the New York Post's latest documented bimbo eruption, I've noticed a bizarre phenomenon surrounding the Tiger Woods scandal. As a topic of discussion, a good many of us seem less concerned with the human tragedy involved and instead we're trying to outdo everyone else in the office's fantasy crisis public relations league, dreaming up ever more creative ways the famous golfer "needs to get out in front of the story more" before he loses even more sponsors and "damages his brand."

(As you might expect, journalists have made a cottage industry out of this speculation about Woods' endorsement career post-scandal -- James Surowiecki's column in the New Yorker on the economic impact of the Woods scandal is a pretty sophisticated example of what I'm talking about.)

I've been caught-up in these shallow conversations with friends and colleagues, only to walk away wondering after the fact whether the impulses behind these conversations are indications that we have a unhealthy cultural dialogue when it comes to sin and redemption.

This weird and increasingly prevalent desire to Monday morning quarterback celebrity scandal is the topic of Michael Hiltzik's excellent Los Angeles Times column. The column has a fairly anodyne headline -- "Tiger Woods' path to redemption has been blazed by many who preceded him" -- but Hiltzik has done some pretty interesting analysis here. Here's the meat of it:

The comeback trail for Woods has been blazed by many who preceded him; in fact, it's been obvious almost from the first.

What's required is the public confessional. Fortunately, one thing our culture has in surfeit is public confessors.

My prediction is that Tiger will eventually go on a national TV program and confess all. Undoubtedly, he will have his pick of venues, all of which are probably already clamoring to offer him a platform on his terms. He need only settle on his preferred atmospherics.

He can talk to Oprah Winfrey if he wants nurturing commiseration. Larry King for a veneer of newsiness. Diane Sawyer for condescending solicitude. Matt Lauer for sensitive, manly contrition. Barbara Walters to display inner turmoil and personal growth.

The key is to produce a foundational narrative encompassing (a) the nature and scale of his offense (adultery); (b) the events of Nov. 27, with all the weird aspects credibly explained even if barely so (i.e., where was he going at 2:30 a.m. and what was his wife really doing with the golf club?); and (c) an apology.

If done right -- and we must assume that Tiger is finally consulting with professionals -- this procedure will accomplish some very important goals. It will allow him to deflect queries on the subject forever after, by referring questioners to the ur-narrative on videotape. It will satisfy the public's demand that process be respected -- give most people, at least, what pop psychologists like Oprah herself call "closure."

If done right, it might even enable him to turn the tables on the curious by making them seem the churlish ones. By the way, whatever show he's on will rack up the ratings of the season.

There are two things that are interesting here. One, Hiltzik breaks everything down with a precision and a matter-of-factness that I think are just spot on. And two, isn't it striking how this narrative of the celebrity public apologia is almost the antithesis of religious narratives of redemption? Rather than measuring your failings against some objective standard and earnestly confessing your sins and apologizing to the people you have wronged, in Hiltzik's narrative the whole point is to manipulate the construct by which you are judged. You choose your forum for confession on the basis of how flattering it is to you. And if you really succeed, you deflect future criticism by arguing that the greater crime is not your own sin but the willingness of others to cast judgment.

So yes, we all know the celebrity-industrial complex is morally bankrupt, but this really made me sit-up and notice how seriously, seriously messed up the celebrity redemption narrative is. I came to this realization in part because Hiltzik explains things very accurately, but also because his clinical tone is borderline unsettling:

As for his now-obligatory response, let's not be too cynical about it. The machinery of the public apology has developed over decades, to the point where its moving parts are very well understood by practitioners and their audiences.

I agree that excess cynicism is a bad thing, but I'm not sure that we should blithely accept this amoral kabuki dance because a) we're complicit in it to the point we understand its "moving parts" and b) Tiger Woods is just treading down a path "blazed by many who preceded him."

The fact is that there is an alternative redemption narrative out there, and even Hiltzik can't explain the Tiger Woods scandal without at least employing the language of religion -- there's a brief discussion about whether "transgression" is a "weasel-word" compared to confessing the specific sin of infidelity; there's Tiger's "path from perdition"; and much discussion over the meaning of the "public confessional."

Now I hardly expect a full-blown theological discussion of the Tiger Woods scandal, but this story's got more ghosts than an abandoned insane asylum built atop an Indian burial ground. The absence of this perspective is why the end of the column is so jarring:

The spectacle of Tiger Woods being tormented by scandal hasn't been uplifting or edifying. It may be natural, but it isn't civilized. Woods is a paragon of physical grace, hard work and athletic achievement, and the best outcome for him would be his speedy return to the tour.

The best outcome is a speedy return to the PGA Tour? Come again?

Granted we're coming at things from a very specific perspective here at GetReligion, but in a better world I hope the best outcome involves saving Tiger Woods' immortal soul and somehow making his family whole again.

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