As far as the public imagination is concerned, there’s no success quite like failure. Supposedly inquiring minds are parched for the stuff, and no amount of it, no matter how grand in scope and design, seems to slake that thirst.
Suffer the pop singers and movie stars; let them overdose in hotel rooms, meltdown between flashes of paparazzi lightning, wax tearful at the altars of vampiric talk show hosts. Ours to embalm are the writers who sensationalize their own failures, only to be exposed, thus bloating their shortcomings to sizes even greater — a gift that keeps on giving us something to banter about.
Rush Limbaugh, Kate Moss, Britney Spears and whatever her sister’s name is, James Frey, Stephen Glass, Winona Ryder, Russell Crowe: Yes, the failure market is one crowded plaza.
Of course, it’s us media types who make it all so bustling. We’re that shady character slouching at the mouth of ill-lit alleys, Tic-Tac containers full of crack. And you’re that fidgety addict, always there to buy a little bit more. But hey, it’s cheap, easy to find and makes you feel better about yourself, if only temporarily. And when your good times turn harsh, we’ll be there with another front page — just for you, buddy. And who cares if it keeps you up at night? You can sleep when you burn out.
Aside from celebrity implosion, which is a commodity in higher demand than gold or oil, political scandal is easily the most saleable item on the failure market.
In post-Confederation Canada, higher scandal found its way into Parliament thanks to the doings of Canada’s first prime minister, a man remembered as much for his alcoholism as his nationalism. The Pacific Scandal saw John A. Macdonald and some of his lackeys on the take from Sir Hugh Allan, just a regular guy with lots of money willing to innocently hand it over to any government that just so happens to hand over a transcontinental railway contract in return.
Perversion is one of our most celebrated failures, all the more so when it happens in political corridors, eh Bill? Canada’s first entry in that department stars Gerda Munsinger, a prostitute from East Germany adored by an erstwhile Associate Minister of National Defence. As it turns out, she was a Soviet spy. Failure heaped upon failure.
And then there was Brian Mulroney, a man who wears failure as comfortably and naturally as most people wear skin. There was Tunagate (rotten fish allowed to enter the marketplace) and Airbus (money for procurement), sure, but Mulroney went through ministers like Larry King through wedding arrangements. Remember that next time you hear about him mentoring Stephen Harper.
Jean Chrétien had APEC, Shawinigate and the Sponsorship Scandal, sometimes called AdScam, which he thoughtfully left behind for Paul Martin’s failing pleasure.
The deconstruction of Martin, feverishly feasted upon thanks to its Shakespearean plotline, paved the way for Harper, who promised naught but the purest of government. And then there was that business with prisoners in Afghanistan, Chuck Cadman and now Maxime Bernier. So much for so little.
Of course, there’s a need to know here — unlike Matthew Good’s bipolar disorder, which we find out about on the eve of a new album and tour. But take the Bernier affair. The need to know revolves around the documents first and the girl second, not the inverse (like, who in Quebec doesn’t know a biker?).
The reason I mention all this is because I own it. It’s my little collection, assembled here for us all to play with. I’m like Oprah to Frey, and, like it or not, so are you. The very fact of our existence enters us into the failure market, and the structure of our culture has us buying without realizing, a lucrative law of behaviour that has a cabal of sweaty bean counters tallying overtime.
And why do I own it? Because, like most people, I feel like I’m owed something. Pure fantasy, of course. No one owes me anything at all — except maybe a few people to whom I’ve lent money. But no one owes me an existential debt, no matter how much I might prefer otherwise. Just the same, I’m instinctually inclined to the other end of the moral spectrum, especially if we’re talking politicians, if only because they make a living off the living I make myself — a rather sickly cycle given I work in media.
So is there a solution, some quick trick to lift us above all this amoral coveting? Critical thinking, maybe, but who does that? Unlike the above buying power, it’s not something we seem to be born with.