Back in the late 1960s, China was undergoing the last terrible madness of the Mao era, the so-called "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." The general idea was that pretty much everything civilization had accomplished needed to be destroyed.
Temples were looted. Accomplished persons were disgraced and humiliated; doctors, lawyers, professors were sent to the countryside to work in pig shit, for example. Thousands were murdered, lynched or committed suicide.
But what I remember most vividly about the insanity of that era were the "self-criticism" sessions in which prominent people were made to face the cameras and debase themselves by confessing to all sorts of imaginary crimes and, especially, moral failings. They would look down, often with placards around their necks, give their staged and memorized confessions in a monotone, as crowds jeered and the print and broadcast media denounced them as unworthy and insincere "parasites." I was a teenager at the time.
The forced confessions had a powerful impact on me, especially since I had just read George Orwell's 1984. How lucky we were, one of our teachers told us, that we lived in a nation where nothing like that could ever happen.
I had my problems with our country, even then. But I couldn't have imagined that we would ever have an atmosphere where we required something like "self-criticism sessions," where prominent people beat themselves up for the cameras. Yet more and more we do demand this, all the time.
As witness Tiger Woods' "confession." The golfer did not have to wear a large-character poster around his neck. He was not beaten by jeering Red Guards with bamboo sticks, but by newspaper columnists and commentators instead.
True, he didn't have to swear allegiance to "Mao Tse-tung thought," as the Great Helmsman's name was spelled in those pre-Pinyin days. But Tiger did promise to be a better Buddhist. Afterward, we didn't send him to the countryside to clean up after animals, but back to therapy. (I'm not sure our way is more socially useful.)
What's different about our cult of forced celebrity humiliation and self-criticism is that it is hardly ever about politics or ideology. Nobody knows anything about Tiger Woods' politics, nor does anybody care what they are.
Nor do our self-criticism orgies usually involve fraudulent or criminal behavior. You didn't see much of a media frenzy demanding a nationally televised confession and act of phony contrition from Mark McGwire, who lied about using steroids to illicitly and artificially break some of baseball's greatest records.
No, with us, everything is all about sex.
Today, we are interested in cheap thrills and titillation, and that's all that matters. When that thug and career criminal Kwame Kilpatrick dragged his wife before the cameras to do what the Watergate boys called a "modified limited hangout," he did it not because of what his corruption had done to the city, but because he was caught screwing his chief of staff.
Kilpatrick's lying and perjury cost the desperately poor taxpayers of Detroit almost $9 million. But we are a race of hypocritical puritans, and what matters to us is sex.
Think about this: This nation now has a profound financial crisis, and an even greater crisis of political will. We desperately want and need health care reform, but we have a Congress unwilling to act — and a president who seems unable to rally the people behind him.
The media gives, under the banner of objectivity, vast space and time to ranting know-nothings who are proud of their stupidity, and to reckless, lying careerist politicians.
Last week U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana,) a highly respected moderate who believed in bipartisanship, announced he was giving up in frustration and wouldn't seek re-election. That devastating development didn't get a tenth of the attention the Tiger Woods story did. By the way, stop for a moment and think about what this "story" was really about.
In December, we learned that a handsome, young billionaire superstar golfer apparently had sex with a lot of willing women. This probably came as a huge shock to anyone under the age of 6. True, he had a beautiful wife and small children, which makes him something of a cad. There is, however, some historical evidence that he may not have been the first celebrity to behave that way.
But why is this anybody's business except his family's? None of this violated the rules of golf. Nor does it seem that any of these women were underage, or that he took them against their will. This brings up another interesting point:
Whenever celebrity sex scandals like this happen, we act as if the women involved were victims. Well, hey: They agreed to party with Tiger, yes? It wasn't exactly a secret that he was married. Are these women any less guilty than he? Every time this happens, the media tend to treat women as if they are less than fully adult, in kind of a bizarre reverse-sexism that feminists have been slow to protest.
In any event, this wasn't breaking news, but old news. Good fanatical Chinese Communists that we are, we demanded and got Tiger to publicly crawl and ask forgiveness. That night, his "confession" was dissected and mainly sneered at by a bunch of hypocritical journalists, some of whom have their own sordid sex lives.
Meanwhile, our nation is failing, politically, economically and otherwise, thanks to President Obama's failure to rally voters and Republicans' willingness, even desire, to destroy things further if that means they can regain power.
Thomas Friedman, the most far-seeing journalist of our age, put it best Sunday: "The president needs to persuade the country to invest in the future and pay for the past all at the same time.
"We have to pay for more new schools and infrastructure than ever, while accepting more entitlement cuts than ever, when public trust in government is lower than ever. If Obama fails, we all fail."
That's the real story. If we continue to ignore it, our nation and our way of life will eventually be destroyed, no matter how many celebrities confess to sex with how many bimbos.
What Tiger should have done is quote that famous statesman Henry Ford II, who was caught late one night, driving with a woman not his wife. "Never complain; never explain," Hank the Deuce said.
He weathered the storm and lived happily ever after. And my profession badly needs to get its priorities straight too.
Speaking of Depression: Macomb Community College has become known for some of the best cultural series in the state. Last year they did extravaganzas on the '60s and later on sports. This year, they are featuring a series called "And Still They Prospered: Living Through the Great Depression," which runs until May with presentations by some of the nation's greatest historians and cultural figures.
I have the honor to be the warm-up act for the series, and will speak on "Staying Alive and Fighting to Survive: Detroit in the Great Depression," at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Lorenzo Cultural Center, (on Garfield Road in Clinton Township). Admission is free (and I'm worth every penny), but if you are interested, you need to pre-register by calling 586-445-7348.
Just don't tell 'em Harry Bennett sent ya.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org