Infidelity: in spite of everything, we still care

The most decorous thing to do in the Tiger Woods affair would be to avert one’s gaze. I feel especially sad for his children who, whatever the outcome, will in this internet age be pursued by the grisly details all their lives. But, in respectful disagreement with MercatorNet’s editor Michael Cook, I argue that, with as much decorum as we can muster, we need to examine squarely the partly hopeful lessons of this sad business.

I don’t mean lessons like “Don’t cheat on your spouse.” It is true and important but we could discuss it without staring at this sordid mess. As for an enormously successful, wealthy, sexy man having plentiful opportunities to stray beyond the bonds of matrimonial fidelity, Louis XIV knew all about that and so I imagine did Rameses II. And while they didn’t know the internet could deliver every unpleasant detail to the prurient, we certainly do.

On the other hand, sordid misconduct by those who seem to enjoy life’s blessings, and those of our society, deserves some notice. When people complain about the muck in the media I often quote my former boss at the Ottawa Citizen, Neil Reynolds, who said that a newspaper is a daily measure of the moral state of a community. When the weather is lousy, I add, you don’t smash the barometer. Those maxims would not justify wallowing in the sordid details of what the press have a habit of calling Tiger Woods’ “affairs” -- although his encounters don’t seem to have risen even to that level -- but my own opinion on reading the barometer is that we can expect slightly better than predicted weather.

What strikes me about this mess, and encourages me, is that even in this liberated age, the overall result of the scandal has been revulsion. In 2005 I began a newspaper column with, “As the narrator of Russell Kirk’s ghost story The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost wanders the sordid main drag of his decaying parish, a neon sign above a stripper bar flashes ‘Stark Naked or Your Money Back’. What a slogan for our times.” I still think so. But the short version of the Tiger Woods business is, “Stark Naked and our Money Back.” As it should be.

From golfing fans to the general public and to Mr. Woods’ commercial sponsors, the general reaction has not been to excuse or diminish his conduct but “Ugh, get away from me.” The mass of humanity in the West has, it appears, managed to resist the siren song of sexual modernity far better than we had feared.

The metaphysics of modernity was expressed very nicely by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966 when he said, “Sex is the mysticism of materialism. We are to die in the spirit to be reborn in the flesh, rather than the other way around.” It was obvious from the start to many people that this plan was fatally flawed. But it is nice to see that most normal people’s reaction to Tiger Woods is that, after 50 years letting it all hang out, we would like to see much of it get tucked back in.

It is somewhat unfair that all this should land on Tiger Woods. To some extent celebrity carries an unfair price. But Tiger Woods was always interesting for three reasons, two inherent and one self-inflicted. The first inherent reason was sheer talent; it was amazing to see how good a human being could be at something at which many of us have failed ignominiously. The second was application; it was intriguing to see how much he could make of his enormous natural gifts both within his chosen field of endeavour and as a human being. The third is that he marketed himself assiduously as, among other things, clean-cut. In this last respect Tiger Woods differs even from admitted bad boy golfer John Daly whose misconduct, while reprehensible, escapes the reproach of hypocrisy, and even more from Bobby Fischer, whose chess genius brought fame he neither sought nor enjoyed and that turned his descent into anti-Semitic madness from a private tragedy into a public scandal.

The talent and the on-course achievements remain amazing. But what he did with his success off the course attracts attention for solid moral reasons as well as ignoble Schadenfreude. Even on the infamous night in which Tiger Woods’ life unravelled publicly the thought may have surfaced briefly that all his achievements made no difference as he fled a woman scorned and wronged. Certainly, in the aftermath, even those of us unlikely to romp to victory in our first Masters are usefully reminded that managing to stagger along the straight and narrow path matters more than any other achievement mundane or spectacular.

A few columnists (female, no less) have suggested that Tiger Woods did what any typical man would do given the opportunity, or that his failings make him seem more human. I personally hope for more from men and mankind. And I am encouraged by the way this matter is unfolding.

Tiger Woods betrayed his wife and his children and broke the moral law and is being heartily condemned. Some say he may one day recover his standing in the world of golf and with the public. And perhaps he will. But if so it will not be by clever PR or clever golf shots. It will be through genuine repentance and improved character.

I am sorry it happened at all, and for the sake of the children in particular I cringe at the public way it happened. But despite all the pounding away at traditional morality in the last century and especially the last 40 years, despite the saturation of popular culture by the Playboy philosophy, we all still know this sort of thing is wrong. And despite everything we still care.

That is worth noting.

John Robson is a writer and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada.


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