‘We Have to be Serious'
It’s Wimbledon again. Aaah! The plunk of balls, the plink of ice in the Pimm’s ... the smell of freshly mown grass and titanium ... strawberries and cream ... singalongs – aaah! – with Sir Cliff Richard ... ... ... and John McEnroe. Aaaargh!!!
Why do I dislike Mr McEnroe so much? We have acquaintances in common. Who have told me, and in no uncertain terms, that in private he is courteous to a fault (a foot-fault, presumably!), a beguiling, even a seductive man. I don’t disbelieve those acquaintances. But I can’t get it to matter.
I don’t know him privately. The only face I do know is the public one. That, I’m afraid, is one of the prices exacted by celebrity: often those endowed with it cease to be a person and start to become a persona. I accept that the private Mr McEnroe is delightful. His public persona is, though, not delightful. And it is one which I dislike – yes, alright, even disproportionately. For and of itself, but much more for the embodiment that it is of so very much of what is wrong with the world.
As I say in my forthcoming book, ‘Man of the New Millennium’, essentially the ‘ethics’ (if such they can be called) of Mr McEnroe the persona are exactly the same as those of Enron. Our need for real ethics today is desperate; their lack is life-threatening, indeed species-threatening. So important are they that the first book of the Millennium Trilogy, ‘The Prophet of the New Millennium’, is even sub-titled ‘A search for principles in an unprincipled age’.
It is acknowledged by all but a few complete loonies that mankind is involved in the biggest crisis of its existence. We will not escape from this situation by spinning our way out of it, or sound-byting our way out of it. We have to define a new code of real ethics – ones relevant to today – and then abide by them. It is thus we will survive. Propagating a lack of ethics – as do the likes of Enron and Mr McEnroe – is akin to the man crossing the Sahara puncturing his water bottle.
The public persona of Mr McEnroe embodies the concept that all that matters in this world is ‘winning’ – and ‘winning’ in a very narrow context indeed. The notion that it is somehow beneficial, or endemic, to us to ‘win at any cost’ is costing us very dear indeed. It could cost us our species.
Now, before I start getting too holier-than-thou for words, let me start with a confession – not a full-fledged one, I’m afraid, not the kiss-and-tell one, just a mini-confession, a confessionette. It is, after all, axiomatic that when we dislike others most is when they echo or mirror aspects of ourselves with which we are not too comfortable.
Shortly I shall be expounding some very cogent arguments about why the world today needs not more competitiveness but less, why we all need again to get right-sized about sport, and the necessity there is – the absolutely vital necessity – to start encouraging gentleness and co-operation and discouraging aggression and competition. (And they’re excellent arguments, compelling, gorgeously written! You really want to hang around to hear them!)
But – another theme of the Millennium trilogy generally, but of ‘Man of the New Millennium’ specifically – we will never start addressing the problems around us until we start tackling those within us. It is within each one of us that the world’s problems start, and thus where the solutions will be found. Even for non-Christians like me, Jesus Christ said some pretty wise things: first removing motes from our own eyes being one of them.
One of the reasons that I so dislike competition is that I’m such a terrible loser. I like to pretend it is out of some lofty idealistic the-world-needs-less-competition motive that I avoid today virtually any activity which involves it. But the truth of the matter is that Greg needs less competition. As a rather nasty child, I would upturn the ‘Monopoly’ board when my bankruptcy was imminent. Essentially today I do the same thing. The disguise may be more effective, but the intention remains the same: If I’m not going to win, then no-one else is! I would be quite capable of cheating playing ‘Snap’ with a four-year-old. My antics in that regard would make those historically of Mr McEnroe appear, by comparison, rather to belong to Mr D’Arcy.
And that brings me to another little problem I have: my temper. (Little problem, like the Pacific Ocean is a little stretch of water!) My rage, it should more accurately be called. Though latterly its targets have been exclusively mechanical (usually the computer!), it remains a trait of mine which I detest, and of which I am deeply ashamed. I have done quite some work on taming the beast. And it’s not now quite the unbridled monster it once was. But, for all that today it may be capable of jumping through hoops, it remains a tiger, and one with both teeth and claws.
I concede that often my conduct is execrable. That of Mr McEnroe rarely rose above the distasteful. There is, however, one fundamental difference between my conduct and his: My tantrums are witnessed by, maybe, four people; those of Mr McEnroe by forty million. I am (thank God!) a role-model to no-one; he was again to millions.
There is also this fundamental difference: I am chastised for my conduct; he was lionised for his.
And it is there where we start entering into the realms where his conduct has global implications, where it stops becoming just bad manners and starts becoming moral pollution.
Now, I’ve been told that Mr McEnroe has sought to justify his youthful exuberance on the grounds that such was expected of him. I didn’t see this particular interview, but I have no reason to doubt this informant any more than I doubt those who tell me of Mr McEnroe’s private attractiveness. If Mr McEnroe believes that, it certainly doesn’t square with my memory – which tells me his audiences used to get very impatient indeed with such antics. But I couldn’t swear to that. Latterly, my memory has become a very blunt tool indeed.
The less charitable hearing such an excuse would consider it merely a variation of the Nuremberg theme, ‘I was only obeying orders.’ I prefer to be more charitable. And concede that (yet another of life’s many paradoxes) it takes quite a big man to concede that he’s a very small man. There can surely be no greater admission of smallness than to bow to public pressure. That is not democracy, but cowardice. The great figures of history are those who have taken the lead. Mr McEnroe is, with this admission, graciously confessing to being a sheep in wolf’s clothing. And that is a big confession. And he is to be applauded for such self-denigration.
Actually, in my heart of hearts, I don’t blame Mr McEnroe at all. If ever I were in a position that someone said to me, “Here’s truckloads of cash, Greg. Just behave badly and it’s all yours” ... well, then, you’d better believe quite how quickly and quite how badly I’d behave. And if people criticised me for that, just like Liberace, I’d cry all the way to the bank.
I do blame industry, however. And I do blame the ethos (not to be confused with ethics) which industry has nurtured – via Mr McEnroe, amongst others. Industry perceived that it was in its interest that Mr McEnroe behaved badly. And it paid him substantial sums in order that he did so. And yes, sir, Mr McEnroe, I am being serious. And, yes, this is something we do have to take seriously. Because it impacts on all of us. And it impacts on us all seriously. How much delinquency has been spawned by the nurturing of this ethos?
I hear people complain about how the young (and I!) are using ‘offensive language’ today as never before. And yet these complainers continue to shop at French Connection UK, and to tote their carrier-bags, even sometimes to wear their t-shirts. French Connection UK would probably tell me to go get myself a sense of humour. Which is the kind of cheap PR shot such companies seek to invoke. If you want to stop young people swearing, stop making it a ‘grown-up’ thing to do, or something to snigger at – stop, in other words, forming companies with deliberately engineered abbreviations.
I’m completely unconvinced about the concept of ‘zero tolerance’ as a method of combating either anti-social behaviour or actual crime. It’s just another trite phrase which actually means nothing and which signifies only that government (internationally) is less interested in tackling problems than it is in the public believing it is tackling problems.
But if we are to have zero tolerance, then that is what we must have. Every psychiatrist and psychologist since Freud has emphasised the need children have for consistent messages, the incredible dangers contained by mixed messages. We cannot have zero tolerance ... except for ... It don’t work that way. Particularly not, when those ‘except fors’ are people whom the impressionable may want to emulate. Government puts health warnings on cigarettes, bans narcotics, because such are unhealthy activities. And yet condones, even applauds, this incredible damage to emotional health.
I am reminded of a speech made by Mr Blair when still Prime Minister to his party’s ‘faithful’ (which in his case meant sycophantic). He was striving, so he declaimed, to create “a job society and not a yob society.” And this (also entirely vacuous) phrase was greeted with rapture by his toadied audience. Who had presumably forgotten that to one of his very first receptions as Prime Minister he had invited Oasis – freshly returned, if I recall aright, from their triumphant trashing of their latest 747.
When yobs infamous locally behave badly we hear the usual cries that these thugs deserve a ‘short, sharp shock’; when yobs famous nationally, even internationally, behave badly they are feted at Downing Street, or are invited to play tennis at Buckingham Palace.
They are further, in Mr McEnroe’s case, paid, as I said earlier, presumably substantial sums to sell industry’s wares. I have seen several commercials starring the tennis player. I have not seen one in which his temper was not predominant. It’s not a tennis player selling us these goods, it’s an aggressive and abusive tennis player.
And, I’m sorry, Mr McEnroe, but you do have a choice: You do not have to make these commercials. I frankly doubt you’re on the breadline, or that any of your close relatives require exorbitantly expensive life-saving medical treatment. I suppose if I were to be told that you were giving such proceeds to charity I may have to re-appraise my opinion. And if by chance I found out you were doing so anonymously, I should certainly have to. But in the absence of those two eventualities, I shall cling tenaciously to my former view.
Apparently over the portal that leads to Wimbledon’s centre court is the excerpt from Kipling’s poem ‘If’: ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same ...’. God, how I wish Mr McEnroe would have read those words with anything but his eyes. There is so much wisdom in those words (‘those two impostors’: great stuff!). But wisdom is not something with which to agree intellectually. For as long as it remains in the head it is only a neat turn-of-phrase. Wisdom only becomes wisdom when that wisdom goes to the heart, when it is absorbed.
I accept that winning at Wimbledon is a triumph. Of course it is. We love it because winning in sport is totally unambiguous. And to be the best in the world, well, that is, of course, a triumph. But losing at Wimbledon is just not a disaster. Disasters in life are the losses of lives or limbs or livelihoods. I’m not too wild either about either of the Williams’s’ sisters’ public personae, but one thing I’ll betcha: they know what a real disaster is.
If we are serious about tackling the enormous problems with which we’re confronted today we have to develop a sense of proportion. And this too is so important that the second book of the Millennium trilogy, ‘The God of the New Millennium’, is sub-titled: ‘A search for balance in an age of spin.’
In the third book, ‘Man of the New Millennium’ (to be published in August 2010), I quote the English soccer manager, who famously said: “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.” To be fair to that manager, I think he intended to be witty. (And I think he succeeded.) But I don’t think such a view is any longer held to be comical.
Space precludes me from talking now about the way that, even as spectators, we are short-changed by this ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality. But if this article has struck any chords with you, stay tuned (as they say), and I will pen a few lines on the subject in the near future. Or you could check out my website on: gregorydark.net.
Marx famously (and erroneously) claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses. Well, today that opiate is sport. And like any opiate it dulls the senses, it absorbs us so completely that it blinds us to what else is happening around us.
Industry loves sport. It sponsors it (i.e. advertises via it) to the tune certainly of billions per year, probably internationally trillions. Not because sport creates winners, but because increasingly it wants us to consider ourselves losers. Losers are much more compliant than winners. Sport provides industry with a paradigm, acceptable to public opinion, for a conduct in business which, without sport, would be unacceptable. Winning in business terms is profit. If, in sport, it is at any cost that winning is acceptable, in business it is at any cost that profits are made. Banks are able to excuse what would otherwise be inexcusable behaviour on the basis that such creates profits, multi-nationals are allowed to flout local laws and/or traditions because anything else would be to endanger profits, the exploiters of slave labour in what is patronisingly called the ‘developing world’ condone their violations of human dignity on the basis that such creates ... profit.
(I sincerely hope incidentally that Nike has considerably improved its sense of morality since Naomi Klein so heroically exposed their disgraceful practises in ‘No Logo’. Otherwise I wonder that so many ‘sports’ stars – dedicated as they all are to concepts like ‘fair play’ and ‘sportsmanship’ – should so flagrantly allow themselves to be bedaubed with the insignia of slave labourers.)
If profit excuses all, then we cannot complain when old people are abused in retirement homes or when hospitals are undercleaned and thus start epidemics or when insurance companies use legal niceties to wriggle out of claims. If profit excuses all, let us stop bleating about climate change or the erosion of natural habitats or the extinction of species or the child sex market or political corruption or sleaze or ... or ... or. Because all these evils emanate from that one source. Not profit itself, but profit outweighing all other considerations: Winning at any cost – the ethics of both Mr McEnroe and Enron.
Again in ‘The Prophet of the New Millennium’, the eponymous character claims that greed is hatred. I entirely agree with him. And the evidence for that claim, I would suggest, is both ubiquitous and irrefutable.
One of the most serious of the crimes committed by President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher was that they made greed acceptable; one (of very many) committed by Messers Bush and Blair is that they made it desirable. The world, as Scott Peck once so wisely wrote, needs to be sold on love. Instead it has been sold on hatred. And with that it has been sold a real bum steer – possibly a steer so bum it will kill us all.
If, in sport, you have to win at whatever cost, that is not sportsmanship. It is hatred. It is, in fact, pure hatred. And it is that simple.
And, yes, Mr McEnroe, I am entirely serious. And yes, my friends, we do need to be entirely serious.