Last week, at an amusement park in middle America, I saw a
seven-year-old boy in a basketball-themed T-shirt that read KNOW
YOUR ROLE--SHUT YOUR MOUTH. Within minutes came another kid,
maybe 12, in a trash-talking T-shirt that said YOU SHOULD BE IN
A MUSEUM--YOU'RE GETTIN' WAXED. Moments later, yet another child
walked world-wearily by in a T-shirt that commanded SPEAK TO MY
AGENT. He was, at most, five years old.
All day these pip-squeaks passed, like the little boy in a
T-shirt manufactured by the No Fear, Inc. apparel company, one
that declared IF YOU CAN'T WIN, DON'T PLAY. (He was holding his
father's hand.) Retreating to my hotel, I switched on ESPN2 in
time to see a commercial in which a man dressed as a giant Slim
Jim was yelling, "Eat me!" Flipping to The Late Late Show on
CBS, I watched former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn read a phony
news item about drug agents seizing several tons of cocaine
before it reached its intended destination of--smirk, leer,
arched eyebrow--"Darryl Strawberry's left nostril." So ended an
unremarkable day in the life of America, where every citizen is
a snarky, cynical, hipper-than-thou, irony-dripping icon of
comedy and cool.
I don't know when, exactly, everyone became a smart-ass, only
that it has happened. "Everybody I know is sarcastic all the
time, in everything they say," a guy named Scott Dikkers
recently told The New Yorker. Dikkers is editor-in-chief
of--what else?--a satirical newspaper called The Onion, and he
and I seem to know all the same people. In sports the
smart-aleck attitude is inescapable, be it on SportsCenter, in
ads for EA Sports, or wherever two sportswriters
gather--invariably to make fun of everyone, including each other.
It is exhausting, all this clever contempt for everything. I
have seen major league baseball trainers wearing T-shirts
bearing the slogan I WILL GIVE TREATMENT, NOT SYMPATHY. On such
seemingly minor everyday messages--call them incidental
incivilities--a popular culture has been built.
So remind me: Why is it wrong to give sympathy to someone who
might need it? What is uncool about occasional earnestness,
sincerity or genuine human emotion? Does every TV commercial
have to be a winking, we-know-that-you-know-that-this-is-a-
cheesy-commercial commercial? With the spoofed-up news on The
Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and "Headlines" on The Tonight
Show, and the mock newscast on The Late Late Show, and the mock
newscast on Dennis Miller Live, and the mock newscast on
Saturday Night Live, television now broadcasts more news
parodies than actual news programs. We have become Wise Guy
Nation. On our one-dollar bill George Washington ought to smirk
like Mona Lisa. On the five, Lincoln's fingers could form a W,
the international symbol for whatever.
In an interview broadcast during halftime of the Knicks-Pacers
playoff game on NBC last Friday night, Indiana guard Mark
Jackson spoke movingly about the recent death of his father. It
was telling that Jackson felt it necessary to point out,
"There's no shame in crying and saying 'I love him to death.'"
You wouldn't think so. But people now feel shame for their
virtues (e.g., loving one's parents) and no shame for their sins
(e.g., loving one's White House intern). Losers--socially or
athletically--deserve ridicule. As I left the amusement park
last week, I saw an adult in a T-shirt that bore the image of a
high school wrestler and the following slogan across the chest:
WIN WITH HUMILITY, LOSE WITH DIGNITY.
The earnest and simple sentiment gave me hope, so I nodded
solemnly as the man passed. Only then did I see the back of his
shirt. It read BUT DON'T LOSE!
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO