A friend confesses that what he finds most disturbing about the Tiger Woods saga is the “Jacobinism of monogamy” on display in the public reaction. There are certain parts of his lament that I don’t share, but he nails something with this term. Not only is the current regime of American marriage quite modern, it’s utterly contemporary. The moralism that attends the idea of marriage is – per my friend – a moralism of public order. Like many other things in American life, the idea of marriage got tightened up after the 1970s. This was partly a response to the upswing in divorce, and it took on bits of concern with growing illegitimacy, especially through the 1990s, but it was also fueled by the new feminist expectations of gender equality in the private sphere. “Traditional marriage” was stripped down and then reloaded with several new and pressing ideological purposes and burdens. Stable marriages have become an explicit interest of the state – of public policy and criminal law. And, now, even evangelical marriages have to navigate expectations that originated in the feminist revolution. (Now, I’m happily down with monogamous marriage on a personal level, and I share both the conservative concerns with family breakdown and the egalitarian liberalism of the new marriage model, but an event like this makes me face some implications of this cluster of beliefs. I never thought of myself as a Jacobin.)
Anyway, it’s this that frames my reaction to the reactions to the Tiger Woods revelations. (Warning: Rank culture-studies-type speculation ahead.) People want to say that the public outrage owes to the fact that Tiger is black and his wife (and/or his roster of paramours) is (are) white (and, in the most important instance, blond!). This was a backlash that was waiting to happen. I think this is simplistic. I think the proper metaphor is not of a backlash, but of a bubble bursting. Woods was the repository of a huge number of fond thoughts and expectations. His excellence as a golfer was easy to project varieties of safeness and niceness and respectability onto (partly because he is, well, a golfer). That’s why he was such a valuable pitchman. When he got married and had two beautiful kids, that just deepened his public identity as a paragon of bourgeois virtue. He was a paradoxical ideal of normality. He was – to borrow a line from Laurie Anderson – a person exactly like you are and I am, only much, much better. This is how it would have to be in America. Just ask Tocqueville.
So, when people – idealizing and identifying in the same mental gesture – thought of Tiger Woods’ marriage, they thought of it as they thought of their own marriage, or their own ideal of marriage. Not only was he married, but he was married to a gorgeous but sane and wifely-seeming wife. And he had two beautiful multiracial kids. Now, in a less willfully naïve time, his freakish wealth and status would have complicated the assumptions we made about his sexual life and marriage. Monogamy was optional, traditionally, for men of that wealth and status. But not now. So not only would we take him to be – per the ideal – faithful to his wife. He, as the bourgeois ideal, would be more faithful, more monogamous, more excellently ensconced in home and family. The gleaming molecular bonds of his marriage would themselves be the stuff of television commercials.
So the prevailing sentiment unleashed over the last few weeks is not, in the most immediate sense, some reflex of racial loathing that we white people have been holding in store in anticipation of this moment. It’s disappointment – disappointment in Tiger Woods as a higher sort of regular guy, disappointment that what he seemed to illustrate about the essential soundness and stability of our most important and worried-about institution, he didn’t illustrate at all, that he was living in the bad old days we’re constantly telling ourselves we’d left behind, and living it up. Now does this disappointment have something to do with his blackness? I think it does, but that’s another post.