What Lurks Beneath

The whole Michael Phelps pot and bong tabloid-morality bonanza offers up only the latest iteration of a tiresome cultural phenomenon that deserves a speedy death. That it contains a surprising component of envious leveling of the high and mighty – so much accomplishment, so much fame, so much fortune, so fast – enacted against someone so likable and, until now, so well liked is only one element. It isn’t, circa 1955 or even 1985, that he smoked pot. Cops do it, pols do it, even judges in their robes do it. It isn’t that pot is any kind of athletic performance enhancer. It isn’t even that – what the more worldly among us fall back on – Phelps foolishly allowed himself to be photographed smoking the pot (what’s wrong with him? – he knows how the game works), permitting the less disapproving to render not moral judgment but practical critique. It isn’t, finally, that Kellogg’s will decline to renew his contract for his failing to represent “the image” that company wants to project. That is the game, and Phelps knew it.

It’s the game itself. That Kellogg’s sells an image in addition to a product. That the image is a product. Do people who eat corn flakes not smoke pot? Do not many children who eat corn flakes know of people who smoke pot? Will some children who eat the flakes not go on to smoke pot, regardless of Michael Phelps? Or, to ask a different kind of question, can Phelps provide any better example of human commitment to a goal, of perseverance, dedication, and graciousness complementing a unique achievement? Presumably, for Kellogg’s, he could be perfect, and – rather than work out, in some genuine, human way, any kind of correction of the situation with Phelps – they can continue to promote the kind of fraudulent perception of human nature that American culture has struggled over the past fifty years to change.

As Tad Friend tells us in the January 19 The New Yorker, about Hollywood film marketing, “Publicity is selling what you have….Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have.” So wholesome Kellogg’s, and all the media outlets that continue to cover the story – even under the guise of covering the coverage – is in the end no different from decadent Hollywood: a tiny wizard behind a great curtain.

That’s what it is.