Maybe it’s just a result of the August doldrums, when heat and inactivity combine to make one feel peevish with the world, but there is a pattern of behavior evident in the cloud-cuckoo-land of the news makers that is getting downright annoying.
Call it the triumph of the ego or the apotheosis of the self or whatever you like, but what it boils down to is the disappearance of the taboo on bragging. It used to be the case — or are we just imagining this? — that well-brought-up people did not draw attention to their own accomplishments unless applying for a position or prize or some other honor, and that even then it was better if someone else did it for them.
This is no longer a popular approach. Take sports, where some of the worst offenders lurk. Was anyone else just a little bit shocked last week to hear Ms. Serena Williams, a fine tennis player but by no current measure the world’s best, congratulate herself heartily on winning another tournament and declare, “I haven’t even begun. I’m just warming up, basically.”? (Nice to offer some consoling words to the runnerup.)
But perhaps nobody was shocked, because this kind of self-satisfaction is now standard fare in postgame press conferences everywhere. Ms. Williams’ sister, Venus, took a similar line after her recent Wimbledon victory, observing accurately but immodestly how well she had played and how hard she had worked to get there. One waited in vain for her to mention how well her opponent had played. Of course, neither of the Williams sisters can yet hold a candle to the queen of tennis braggadocio, Ms. Martina Hingis, or the game’s surly prince, Mr. Tim Henman, so reliably ungracious in defeat.
Tennis is not the only sport thus afflicted. It could be said that the problem goes all the way back to Mr. Muhammad Ali, the boxing hero who was the first to actually spell out the “I am the greatest!” doctrine that athletes in every field cut their teeth on today. It is not politically correct to criticize Mr. Ali now that he is old and ill, but this kind of nonsense jarred at the time and has done a lot of harm since. Look at golf, whose shining star just now is Mr. Tiger Woods. He is indeed an extraordinarily gifted player and by all accounts a very decent fellow, but even he thinks nothing of pointing out the highlights of his game after a tournament, as if the sportswriters hadn’t seen them all quite well for themselves. And each time he does it, one experiences that same little “frisson” of discomfort.
That is nothing, though, to what one feels when the politicians get warmed up. Politics is the supreme arena of the ego, and its most bombastic practitioners — the Americans — have been much in the news recently with their pre-election party conventions. What most amazes the distant observer of these tasteless shows for people of arrested intellect is the general, uncritical acceptance of the ethos of bragging. It is not just the party faithful, either. Media commentators across the political spectrum fell over themselves, for example, to applaud U.S. President Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles last week. And yet — Mr. Clinton’s disarming folksiness and energetic delivery aside — what was this speech but just another boastful run-through of his administration’s accomplishments, real or imagined, over the past eight years?
Not that Mr. Clinton has a corner on boastfulness. It’s just that he happens to boast better, i.e., less tediously if no less transparently, than others. Nor is this a purely American failing, although that country does seem to produce the most colorful offenders. Democracy, with its pesky elections and the pressure it puts on people to go out and drum up votes, begets bragging as a tomcat begets kittens. Perhaps only hereditary monarchs can really afford to be modest. In the case of the U.S. presidential race, some hope has been held out that the two nominees’ running mates, the Democrat Mr. Joseph Lieberman and the Republican Mr. Dick Cheney, might be the men to buck the trend, since they were not seeking, but were sought for, high office. Judging by their demeanor at their respective conventions, however, the prospect is not good. In the end, the great U.S. election machine grinds everyone to a grinning, waving likeness.
Sports and culture throw up more true exceptions than politics, and they are to be treasured when they appear: Australia’s Mr. Ian Thorpe, for instance, indignantly declining to be labeled “the greatest swimmer of the century”; Swedish tennis player Mr. Thomas Enqvist, so generous in victory last week; or the late Sir Alec Guinness, who fashioned an entire career out of creative self-effacement. These, not the braggarts, ought to be our heroes.
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