06/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil: Final Thoughts on Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods has returned to the golf course where, in relation to the public, he belongs. He putts and drives for a living, and is particularly good at putting and driving, and owes us nothing for his talent, though his ability to negotiate a sand trap is a dazzling sight, even if you don't like golf, which I don't. Viewing great talent, in any form, is the spectator's highest privilege, as it offers relief from the banality of daily life and hints toward limitless possibility, the seed from which hope grows. After all, what are the odds a golf ball, no bigger than a jawbreaker, hit by a peculiarly shaped titanium club, will soar 400 yards into the air and land, finally, into a tiny hole, otherwise known as its intended destination?

Talent is a gift, and though it must be nurtured, we are essentially born with certain abilities--profound dexterity, perfect pitch, innate sense of composition--or we aren't. The showcasing of one's talent, then--the decision not to harbor one's gift like a secret--is a turn of the screw, the possessor sharing his good fortune with the public--an act of both courage and goodwill, as we are permitted to ignore, reject, scrutinize or take delight in the offering. If we take delight, we accept the gift and celebrate it, and this is where the exchange ends. We celebrate the talent, not the soul, which was never offered in the first place.

The soul is another, private matter. When the public begins to perceive this fact otherwise--when the public begins to believe the gift and the soul are given in tandem--it implies indentured servitude, as if, by sheer acceptance, we have all been made shareholders in the life of the talented one, on which he must pay out dividends until death. And herein lies the terrible confusion: we have mistaken one's gift for a pledge to serve.

But Tiger Woods' job has never been to serve the public. His job is to play golf, not to uphold a pseudo-righteous idea of moral turpitude, which is beside the point anyway. To say we feel betrayed by Tiger Woods' infidelity is as absurd as it is laughable. We feel betrayed because Tiger did not act as we, the shareholders, permitted him to act. We feel betrayed because, as a Pagan icon created out of our own imaginations, we could not control him, an unpleasant reminder of our inability to control anything. So we brought him to his knees, painted a scarlet letter on his forehead, and forced him into a public display of humiliation, as we demanded an apology for his uncouth actions--like fascist moral police--which he gave.

It was a truly putrid moment in our nation's history, Tiger quavering in front of television cameras and a live audience, and it was a stark example of our country's misplaced rage (much like James Frey's appearance on Oprah, and Kanye West's appearance on Leno). Adultery is a private, domestic issue--awful for sure--but private and domestic nonetheless, the awfulness of which has little to do with anyone other than the adulterer's immediate family.

However, leading the country to the brink of economic collapse -- or manipulating a vulnerable public into a costly, unjustifiable, decade-long war -- is an offense that affects all of us, and will continue to affect all of us deeply and well into the future. And these offenses were not committed by athletes or artists or actors or actresses; they were committed by unremorseful CEOs and politicians whose services we invest in, literally, and whose private actions--tailoring raw intelligence, cooking the books--have public consequences, none of which have been remotely accounted for.

To say an apology from these culprits is in order is, to say the least, a drastic understatement, but that we cannot muster the same devastating ire and influence that brought Tiger to grovel for forgiveness is a complete failure of American sensibility and priority, akin to Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned. And yet we still wonder how our leaders and banks and insurance companies get away with what they get away with. Well, here's the lesson: when faced with flames we demonized a golfer whose gift of talent was, apparently, not enough; on top of that we demanded his shame. Shame on us.