Martha Stewart is convicted and sentenced to five months in jail; Ken Lay, the former chairman of Enron, is charged with engaging in a conspiracy to deceive investors and employees; former chess champion Bobby Fischer is picked up in Japan and faces deportation to the U.S., where he faces charges of violating economic sanctions against the former Yugoslavia. All of the above events happened in one week, and they share a common denominator: A star rises to the top of his or her game, and then goes down the tubes as the public looks on with fascination. The word, of course, is Schadenfreude: Pleasure derived from others’ troubles. Not often discussed in polite company, Schadenfreude not only accompanies every public blunder and tabloid scandal of our time, it is a driving force in the subsequent media frenzy over those blunders and scandals. And in the past several months, it seems that Schadenfruede is on a roll.
What’s really going on? Does the prevalence of Schadenfreude mean that the core of the human condition is mean-spirited, hostile and angry? Or is it just fascination?
Look around, and everywhere there is evidence of the joys of watching the famous fall. Fans cheered when an unknown, Todd Hamilton of Oquawka, Ill., bested heavy-hitters Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson in the British Open last week, just as they cheered when Messrs. Els and Mickelson outplayed Tiger Woods. Likewise when Maria Sharapova blew two-time defending champion Serena Williams off the court at Wimbledon. The public loves to pump up a star-and then loves to see that star deflated. Closer to home, think of the clamor that attended the ousting of New York Times editor Howell Raines, a formidable talent undone by one weaselly reporter. Or take the example of Richard Grasso, the regulator of the world’s largest companies and investment banks as head of the New York Stock Exchange, who was thrown out last autumn and then vilified in the press for his greed.
The media is consumed with Schadenfreude. Turn on the 6 o’clock news any night and you will be treated to a litany of tragic events, terrible things that have happened to other people that day-fires, floods, robberies, murders and horrific accidents-which in no way give an accurate portrayal of the state of the country or the city. Then half an hour later when it gets to the serious stuff, it’s fires, floods, robberies, murders and horrific accidents in foreign countries. News producers ignore good news to the point where it almost becomes laughable. Of course, if they showed mostly good news, it’s an open question whether anyone would tune in. Look at the New York Post’s Page Six: As long as unfortunate things keep happening to boldface names, they’ll be in business.
Perhaps the most notorious case of worldwide Schadenfreude was the O.J. Simpson trial, which the media and the public turned into a virtual box-office hit. It’s hard to know what the public enjoys more: fawning over a star’s rise, or crowing over his fall. And what of Saddam Hussein: Do those who celebrate his demise do so because the Iraqi people are free of a brutal dictator, or do they celebrate because a guy who had immeasurable wealth and palaces ended up cowering in a hole in the ground?
Politics is Schadenfreude’s playground. During Bill Clinton’s second term, much of the public delighted in watching the brilliant, eloquent President of the world’s most powerful country brought to his knees and humiliated by a chatty Beverly Hills schoolgirl. You can bet that in the upcoming Presidential election, there will be a Schadenfruede vote, levers pulled by those who want to throw those smug Bushies out of Washington.
Will it happen? Just ask the President’s father.
Democratic Convention Mistake: Al Sharpton
It almost seems like a joke, and a bad joke at that: Al Sharpton, a liar and a racial arsonist, is going to address the Democratic National Convention. It is tempting to ask what John Kerry and the nation’s top Democrats are thinking, but we know the answer. They think that Mr. Sharpton’s high-profile appearance will help energize the African-American vote. What a sad commentary. And what a twisted set of values these Kerry Democrats have. They weren’t going to allow Senator Hillary Clinton to speak at the convention, but then they reversed themselves (this is what’s known as a flip-flop, for those of you keeping score at home). But when it came to New York’s best-known demagogue, they never hesitated. The man who consorts with anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan; the man who called white businessmen on 125th Street “interlopers” (leading to a fatal arson in one white-owned business) and who built his career on a liar named Tawana Brawley; the man who failed in every primary-this man is considered worthy of a convention speaking role. But Hillary Clinton, a duly elected Senator from New York, had to be forced on the convention’s organizers.
The Democrats apparently believe that they will gain more votes than they will lose by giving Mr. Sharpton a coveted position. That’s not likely-African-Americans are among the most loyal Democrats, but ethnic whites are a key swing vote, and they may be put off by Mr. Sharpton’s prominence at the convention. That’s not to say you have to be white to loathe Mr. Sharpton’s dubious achievements. It speaks volumes about Kerry Democrats that they consider Mr. Sharpton a spokesman for the nation’s African-Americans, when any New Yorker could have told them that Al Sharpton speaks for Al Sharpton and only Al Sharpton.
Mr. Sharpton’s antics in the 2004 Democratic primaries alone should have disqualified him from the convention. While the genuine candidates were pinching pennies and keeping track of campaign finances, Mr. Sharpton lived a life of luxury paid for by his campaign. And his campaign-finance records have drawn the attention of the Federal Election Commission.
Giving Al Sharpton a platform in Boston is an act of racial pandering that calls into question the Kerry campaign’s judgment and intelligence.
Bush Versus Kerry: Who’s Taller?
Lost in the pundits’ armchair analyses of Bush versus Kerry, with the maps of red and blue states and questions of which candidate can better protect America, is perhaps the most salient point of all: In five of the past six U.S. Presidential elections, the taller candidate has won. Although George W. Bush was shorter than Al Gore, Bill Clinton was taller than Bob Dole (1996) and a hair taller than George H.W. Bush (1992); George H.W. Bush was taller than Michael Dukakis (1988); Ronald Reagan was taller than Walter Mondale (1984) and Jimmy Carter (1980).
Politics isn’t the only place height seems to pay off: A new study, reported in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor, has found that for each inch you stand above average, you earn an extra $789 per year. The researchers-Timothy Judge of the University of Florida and Daniel Cable of the University of North Carolina-used 5-foot-9 as the average height for a man, and 5-foot-3 as average for a woman. So a six-foot woman can expect to earn over $200,000 more than a 5-foot-5 female colleague during the course of her career, all other things being equal. The authors of the study, based on data from thousands of American and British citizens, speculate that taller people may earn more because they have greater self-esteem, and others tend to regard them as authority figures. “The process of literally ‘looking down on others’ may cause one to be more confident,” said Mr. Judge, adding, “Similarly, having others ‘looking up to us’ may instill in tall people more self-confidence.” They also found that short men tend to suffer more from workplace “height-ism” than short women.
Oh, and in case you didn’t know: George W. Bush is six feet tall, while John Kerry is 6-foot-4.