Tears of a Clown
Watching the finals of the Australian Open was a revelation. The worthy loser, Andy Murray, praised the winner, Roger Federer, by saying that he, Murray, could cry like Roger, but as yet could not play as well. He then broke down and wept in front of thousands. The crowd loved it and cheered Andy to the rafters. Every print and electronic journalist covering the final repeated Murray’s words as if they were the Sermon on the Mount. The dour Scot was suddenly transformed into a tender, caring, sympathetic person, instead of a tough guy whose hitherto impregnable armor had carried him within a whisker of tennis immortality by winning a grand slam.
Murray’s tears were nothing new for the Australian public and the millions watching on the idiot box. Just one year ago to the day, the very same Roger Federer had wept unashamedly during the ceremony while addressing the winner, Rafael Nadal. I had watched that final, too, and was surprised to see the most successful tennis player ever cry like a baby in front of thousands of his fans. What is going on here? I said to myself. Have tennis players turned into Hollywood types? Is this genuine emotion, or is it shameless spin? Have their agents instructed them to cry in order to raise the price of their endorsements?
The answer to this is simple. Tennis players are following the cult of sentimentality as men in all walks of life—politics, the arts, even crime—are doing. Tough guys may not dance nowadays, but they sure know how to cry, at least in public. Playing the sympathy card is the equivalent of what long ago was known as the stiff upper lip, with today’s difference being the theatrical prop of the wobbling lower lip. And so it goes, sport fans. You lose, you cry, and it snatches moral victory from the hard-won triumph of the winner. Actually, it is a shameless new low in spin, first established by the great draft dodger himself, William Jefferson Clinton, a man who could well up at the sight of a pregnant prostitute on her way to court.
The birthplace of the stiff upper lip was Sparta, which was also my mother’s birthplace, although the latter fact is neither here nor there. “With your shield or on it,” was the order a Spartan mother issued to her departing warrior son. In other words, come back a winner, or be brought back dead. Then again, I remember my mother wailing when my father went off to war, a very un-Spartan behavior, but what the hell—she had become Americanized, I suppose, although this was back in 1940. Now everybody cries, and tears have become the commodity that does not lose its value, no matter what. One of the greatest presidents of recent years, Richard Nixon, kept a straight face and a stiff upper lip when he was forced to relinquish the presidency after a congressional coup d’etat, as did his Veep, Spiro Agnew.
Compare that with the present British prime minister, Gordon Brown. He recently wept on TV when talking about the death of his infant daughter—she died ten days old, never having left the hospital—but this came after hours of negotiations with the BBC on how to overcome the widespread perception that he is dour and remote. It does make one wonder. No parent can fail to sympathize with Brown losing a child, but how many would talk about it in a political interview in front of millions? But Brown is a politician desperately seeking public approval and about to go to a national election, so even the death of a child is fair game.
I suppose it is only by emoting in public that so many people today believe you have any heart at all. The rot really took off after the death of Princess Di, when an ugly mood threatened the British monarchy because of the perception that they were cold and heartless from their absence of public displays of grief. It was only after the Queen showed some signs of sorrow that the danger was diffused. This had its roots in the therapy culture, which tells us that it’s bad to repress emotion. “Let it all hang out” was a 60’s curse, and it has now become a way of life. Everyone cries, starting with soldiers, an unheard-of phenomenon. This has the pernicious effect not only of devaluing real feelings such as grief but of elevating histrionics such as self-pity and narcissism. Hence our society’s obsession with “self-esteem.”
Emotional incontinence has turned men into wimps. The new man has to be caring and unafraid to burst into tears. But I’ve got news for you. It’s all a sham. Good men were and are caring without having to show it. Stoicism and emotional restraint are superior to cheap histrionics. Touchy-feely types are like Clinton, a dime a dozen, and as dishonest as they come.
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.