We have become serial character assassins.
Don Imus is just the latest example of something sad and unattractive: we have an insatiable, mean bloodlust for bringing people down.
By "we" I mean me. And you. And Imus, who of course has made millions tearing people apart and cackling at the demise of other famous high and mighties.
The collective "we" that is, I suppose, contemporary American culture has made character destruction and celebrity-slaughter the gladiator sport of our day.
People don't get ruined in football and boxing except by accident. But it is the goal of the culture of the character assassins. And the Coliseum is columns like this, Web sites like this and television networks like this. The Coliseum is filled with people like you and me.
We are all part of it. Who hasn't enjoyed the downfall of some famous person — be it Mark Foley, Ted Haggerty, Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger, Britney Spears or Martha Stewart?
The merits or demerits, guilt or innocence of any of these names in the news are absolutely irrelevant to what I'm talking about. Some of us hate some people. Period.
Plenty of bad people get their just comeuppance; plenty of innocents get slaughtered too. I won't even bother to give my views about Imus. I can't believe anyone in the world cares what anybody else thinks anymore: every possible opinion on the matter has been stated somewhere in the yakking universe five times, loud and soft.
The point is this sordid personality destruction has become a repetitive public ritual and we're hooked on it. Numbers crunchers could probably make graphs of the frequency and intensity of Great Falls. And of our voyeuristic, uncharitable fascination with them.
The Duke lacrosse team learned it can happen to ordinary people too, that unknowns can become knowns — famous and infamous — in one fast news cycle. A year and $3.5 million later, the accused Duke players have legal redemption but untold scars as well.
Their problems weren't caused only by a morally bankrupt prosecutor, but by a culture that was rooting for the fall of these privileged white boys who played with strippers. They certainly had their defenders in the world of professional arguers as well. That just meant that the whole case became an "issue" — partisan, divisive, loud and cruel.
It isn't hard to understand why there are so many character lynchings. There are a lot of rats and phonies in this world. Is the national supply of famous creeps higher than at other points in our history? Absolutely, simply because the supply of media is so vastly greater. More media, more bandwidth to create celebrities and then stalk them.
And with the Internet and ubiquitous television, geographic proximity is no longer necessary for a mob mentality to arise. We have virtual mobs. For briefing, shiny sick moments all eyes are focused on Imus — or Anna Nicole, Michael Jackson, Jack Abramoff or Ken Lay.
Our media and our culture have become expert at creating celebrities and other phonies.
We can turn a contestant on a game show into a household name in a week. And like some cheesy Hollywood threat: "We made you, and we can break you."
So many of the celebrities in politics, sports and entertainment are undeserving, greedy, hubristic, ostentatious, coarse, egotistical or vulgar. Of course we love it when they crash and burn. We wouldn't be human if we didn't. Some of them deserve everything they get.
And spotting these parasitic unworthies, calling them out, cheering on their demises seems like the only tool we have to fight societal fakery and fraud. How else can we fight back this amorphous enemy but to collect scalps? We wait vigilantly for their flameouts to lighten the loads of our lives with a little innocent gloating.
I do this in my column all the time. An aspect of this process is, of course, necessary to check the people who have power and abuse it. The game is different for people who hungrily seek fame, fortune and power; they're in the game by choice, they know the stakes and the risks and they want to play. That doesn't mean we should be quite so happy when they fall.
The problem is that we are devouring ourselves. We can create celebrities, but not leaders. We generate fame, but not honor.
Perhaps the most we can do, you and I, is try not to let this unforgiving quality of public life seep into our private lives.
By Dick Meyer