Last week, at an amusement park in middle America, I saw a seven-year-old boy in a basketball-themed T-shirt that read KNOW YOUR ROLE—SHUT YOUR MOUTH. Within minutes came another kid, maybe 12, in a trash-talking T-shirt that said YOU SHOULD BE IN A MUSEUM—YOU'RE GETTIN' WAXED. Moments later, yet another child walked world-wearily by in a T-shirt that commanded SPEAK TO MY AGENT. He was, at most, five years old.
All day these pip-squeaks passed, like the little boy in a T-shirt manufactured by the No Fear, Inc. apparel company, one that declared IF YOU CAN'T WIN, DON'T PLAY. (He was holding his father's hand.) Retreating to my hotel, I switched on ESPN2 in time to see a commercial in which a man dressed as a giant Slim Jim was yelling, "Eat me!" Flipping to The Late Late Show on CBS, I watched former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn read a phony news item about drug agents seizing several tons of cocaine before it reached its intended destination of—smirk, leer, arched eyebrow—" Darryl Strawberry's left nostril." So ended an unremarkable day in the life of America, where every citizen is a snarky, cynical, hipper-than-thou, irony-dripping icon of comedy and cool.
I don't know when, exactly, everyone became a smart-ass, only that it has happened. "Everybody I know is sarcastic all the time, in everything they say," a guy named Scott Dikkers recently told The New Yorker. Dikkers is editor-in-chief of—what else?—a satirical newspaper called The Onion, and he and I seem to know all the same people. In sports the smart-aleck attitude is inescapable, be it on SportsCenter, in ads for EA Sports, or wherever two sportswriters gather—invariably to make fun of everyone, including each other.
It is exhausting, all this clever contempt for everything. I have seen major league baseball trainers wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan I WILL GIVE TREATMENT, NOT SYMPATHY. On such seemingly minor everyday messages—call them incidental incivilities—a popular culture has been built.
So remind me: Why is it wrong to give sympathy to someone who might need it? What is uncool about occasional earnestness, sincerity or genuine human emotion? Does every TV commercial have to be a winking, we-know-that-you-know-that-this-is-a-cheesy-commercial commercial? With the spoofed-up news on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and "Headlines" on The Tonight Show, and the mock newscast on The Late Late Show, and the mock newscast on Dennis Miller Live, and the mock newscast on Saturday Night Live, television now broadcasts more news parodies than actual news programs. We have become Wise Guy Nation. On our one-dollar bill George Washington ought to smirk like Mona Lisa. On the five, Lincoln's fingers could form a W, the international symbol for whatever.
In an interview broadcast during halftime of the Knicks-Pacers playoff game on NBC last Friday night, Indiana guard Mark Jackson spoke movingly about the recent death of his father. It was telling that Jackson felt it necessary to point out, "There's no shame in crying and saying 'I love him to death.' "
You wouldn't think so. But people now feel shame for their virtues (e.g., loving one's parents) and no shame for their sins (e.g., loving one's White House intern). Losers—socially or athletically—deserve ridicule. As I left the amusement park last week, I saw an adult in a T-shirt that bore the image of a high school wrestler and the following slogan across the chest: WIN WITH HUMILITY, LOSE WITH DIGNITY.
The earnest and simple sentiment gave me hope, so I nodded solemnly as the man passed. Only then did I see the back of his shirt. It read BUT DON'T LOSE!