Thursday, March 8, 2012

Orin Starn's "The Passion of Tiger Woods"

Orin Starn is Professor and Chair of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes, the award-winning Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian, and a co-editor of The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics. An avid golfer with a five handicap, Starn has written about golf for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and provided commentary on ESPN and NPR. He blogs about golf at and regularly teaches a course about sports and society.

Starn applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal, and reported the following:
I love the page 99 test. From what I recall of Ford Madox Ford, it also suits his style. Ford’s novels always seemed a bit monotonal with not much happening. So you could indeed tell from flipping to page 99, or any other page for that matter, whether you liked a Ford book or not, because it all read more or less the same in a reassuring, almost hypnotic way.

It’s a long way, I must say, from Ford Madox Ford to the fuss over the foibles of a star golfer in early 21st century America. I’m an anthropologist, and The Passion of Tiger Woods is an anatomy of the sex scandal involving the great golfer that grabbed headlines a couple of years ago. Many people I know felt, reasonably enough, that the whole affair was a waste of ink and another index of the debased crassness of an America that seems so enchanted by the likes of The Biggest Loser, Wife Swap and Jersey Housewives. And many others think golf is a boring, retrograde sport anyway (the late comedian George Carlin once said he’d rather watch “flies fucking” than have to watch golf on TV).

As an anthropologist, however, I found that the scandal opened a revealing view into the zeitgeist of these strange times. I show how Tiger’s travails and the culture of golf reflect broader American anxieties—about race and sex, scapegoating and betrayal, and the role of the sports hero. It’s true enough that I wrote The Passion of Tiger Woods drugged up on oxycontin, Vicodin, and pot brownies to dull the severe back pain that had me on medical leave after a fifth lumbar surgery. But, even sober, I really do think that the story of Tiger’s fall from grace – and his current comeback -- is a drama that says much more than you might think about the bizarre funhouse and horror show of America today.

Page 99, in fact, shows how the debate over Tiger’s sex life became a flashpoint for fears and prejudices around intermarriage even in this more would-be enlightened postracial America. Many black women, as I found in what might be called the virtual fieldwork I did on internet chat rooms, were enraged to discover that every single one of Tiger’s mistresses was white (and his wife too), a commentary on the demographics of race, love, and resentment in the country today. One internet poster I quote on page 99 took the moral of the Woods affair to be that black women should avoid black men altogether: “WHITE MEN HAVE MONEY, POWER, SMOOTH TANNED SKIN AND ARE GORGEOUS! THIS IS COMING FROM AN ENLIGHTENED BLACK WOMAN! WAKE UP SISTAS!!!!!!!!!”.

Of course, many Americans, especially whites, have grown resentful about what they take to be racial finger-pointing and excuse-making. Against those who saw Woods as somehow a black superstar being picked on by the white media, another chat room poster I quote on page 99 opined: “I’m sick and tired of this getting turned into some racial bullshit….Tiger is just a man whore.” Interestingly, some African-Americans also felt race had nothing to do with the scandal. “Look at all the ignorant human debris on here talking about race. Go figure. I hate black people who always act like white people hold them down and act like the world needs to just hand them shit.” In the tradition of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and other black intellectuals and activists who have embraced the creed of black power and independence, the demand of this particular woman was for racial self-reliance, and saying no to the condescension of hand outs.

I’m sure Tiger Woods himself never imagined that his serial philandering would provoke such debate about race and other weighty matters. He’s divorced now, and back on the course trying to recapture the magic that has made him a golf legend and one of the world’s most famous faces.

I and most other golf fans wish him well.
Learn more about the book and author at Orin Starn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue