It is interesting that I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam a week after poor Tiger Woods found himself in the eye of a media storm – his personal life, wife, and girl friends on the side embarrassingly laid bare by tabloids thanks to a strange combination of a hedge, a fire hydrant, a tree and an out of control car.
McEwan’s story is a tale of morality following a week in the life of two friends, one of them a newspaper editor called Vernon Halliday. His moral dilemma involved a newspaper with falling readership and some photographs he found his hands on of a right-wing politician – who had previously supported apartheid and currently supported capital punishment – dressed in drag. To print or not to print, was the question. Of course, Halliday chose to print, and we are asked to believe that he is an unprincipled twit for it.
Yet, I found myself wondering if digging into the personal life of a politician is equivalent to digging into the life of a golf pro. Politicians play a critical role in deciding society’s attitude towards morality – that tricky question of what is acceptable and what not in our personal and public lives. Hence, it is important to know that they can themselves live by the principles that they want others to follow. McEwan’s politician, Julian Garmony, knew what it is to be different from the norm, to hide, to feel ashamed, to find yourself different from others in his personal life. Yet, he didn’t use his own life experience to create a world that was more forgiving and sympathetic of people in minority, with an outlook different from others. In public, he presented an unsympathetic, unforgiving pose because that brought him more power. That is hypocrisy, and in this case, a dangerous hypocrisy. And a newspaper was justified in exposing it.
Tiger Wood’s predicament is of another order. His sponsorships, his achievements, his sport – the reasons of his fame have little to do with his affairs and marriage. Nor does he find himself in the position to arbiter society’s tolerance of other adulterors. Yet, we embarrass him out of the pure ghoulish pleasure of seeing the rich and famous humiliated. That is yellow journalism at its purest and most venomous.
McEwan tripped on this one, I am inclined to believe.