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Running out of scorn


In my 20s, it seemed like a fun and harmless way to make a buck, but as I got older it began to feel wrong, and then shameful, until finally I just wanted out of the scorn industry.

The scorn industry -- that co-dependent network of writers and readers, yakkers and listeners, trolls and tweeters heaping contempt on our fellow man -- manufactures one thing: Moral outrage. It's a very popular product. Like Coke, scorn is produced and consumed nearly everywhere on Earth. And too much of it causes decay.

But I'm running out of scorn. I've had an outrage outage. I have emigrated from Indignation Nation to a land -- let's call it Lower Dudgeon -- where citizens don't sit in moral judgment of every public figure, but save their contempt for the truly contemptible.

This week, a better columnist than I would be manufacturing disdain for Jim Tressel (football coach charged with mendacity and hypocrisy) or Lance Armstrong (pedaler accused of PED-use) or LeBron James (who crassly exercised his free agency on television).

Am I morally superior to any of these men? Of course not. But as someone paid to comment on sports, I am expected to be serially outraged, to heap scorn in ever-higher piles. I am not just a professional naysayer but a professional neigh-sayer, watching the world from atop a high horse.

Given the elevation from which I have sometimes viewed the world -- astride a high horse that is astride the high road that traverses the moral high ground -- you'd think I could see pretty far.

Trouble is, when you're accustomed to viewing the world through Rose-colored glasses -- I speak of Pete Rose, who earned our collective contempt by betting on baseball and lying about it while rocking an unforgivable haircut -- you begin to see all scandal as equal. The world resolves itself into two states, and two states only: Grace and disgrace.

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In the past week, then, the word "scandalous" has been applied in print equally to Ryan Giggs (Manchester United midfielder accused of marital infidelity) and Dominique Strauss-Kahn (ex-IMF chief accused of rape).

In headlines, DISGRACED now precedes TRESSEL (who deserves scrutiny for evidently overseeing an unclean football program) in the same way it does MADOFF (who deserves life imprisonment for robbing people of their life savings). "Fraud" has been caboosed to both names, which suggests a failure of language. Their two transgressions, it somehow seems necessary to point out, are not equal. But the tenor of the commentary often is.

None of this is meant to excuse the daily litany of deceit documented on the sports pages. Tressel should of course be held to account. It's the inevitable byproduct -- the pro forma public condemnations, the expressions of moral outrage -- that I find wearisome. A man's public persona doesn't reflect his private failings? Neither does mine. Creating an idealized public persona is practically the job description of column writing (and other forms of punditry), which makes it an exceedingly unlikely forum for moralizing.

Anyone who feels real moral outrage when reading the Sports section has almost certainly skipped the News and Metro sections. The murderers given a single paragraph on 2C, The Hague-bound war criminals on 1A, would leave the most self-righteous reader too demoralized to moralize on, say, the Miami Heat. A man taking his talents to South Beach is, in the context of a single day's newspaper, a comical diversion, a performance-art piece of slapstick self-absorption.

And anyway, even the most dedicated scorn-heaper on talk radio is eventually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sport's little flim-flammeries. Daily corruption cannot be met by daily conniption.

I realize, of course, that by abandoning a pose of moral superiority I am adopting a pose of moral superiority. ("Judge not lest ye be judged" sounds, in its own way, like a moral judgment.) But I don't mean to. What I mean to say is that I'm leery of examining other people's shortcomings when I am not exactly a paragon of longcomings.

And that's precisely why I'll fail in my effort to abandon the scorn industry, and almost certainly heap scorn on someone soon: Because I'm human, and humans are all too human. Soon then -- and against my best intentions -- I'll work myself into a self-righteous lather over something unworthy of genuine contempt. I will then apply that lather to the scandalous scalp of some nickel-and-dime athlete newly busted for some Mickey Mouse misdeed.

I'll feel a brief buzz of moral superiority, followed by an extended period of shame and hypocrisy. That's how the news cycle seems to work: Lather, rinse, repeat.