Think back—a few minutes, or a few months, or a few years—to a major screwup that’s affected you. Something personal that happened within your peer group. You know—like, your friend blew off plans for the third time in a row. Or maybe it was something that happened at a larger level and gnawed into your consciousness—say, your government botched the occupation of a Middle Eastern country.
Now think of the language that surrounded the aftermath. Chances are, it involved someone playing a card of some sort. The Race Card. The Gender Card. The Gay Card. The Addiction Card. The Bad-Childhood Card, the Bad-Parents Card, the Bad-Colleague Card, the Bad-Boss Card, the Bad-Apple Card, the Bad-Intelligence Card.
If it weren’t for the fact that I was dealt this unfortunate card—through no fault of my own—this wouldn’t have happened!
Is absolutely everybody a whiny, self-pitying, blame-shifting little bitch these days? Can’t anyone just swallow hard and own up—just take the blame, the whole blame, and nothing but the blame?
The concept of owning up has become so foreign, so unfamiliar, that self-directed blame-assignment has acquired its own jokey, insincere catchphrase: “my bad.“ Meanwhile, every day in the news and in pop culture, major and minor public figures shuffle blame-shifting cards with all the pseudo-finesse of sidewalk grifters. Mel Gibson spews hateful anti-Semitism to cops (and calls one Sugar Tits). His first response: to play the Booze Card. “I have battled the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse. I apologize for any behavior unbecoming of me in my inebriated state.“ Ah, yes: brave Mr. Braveheart, battling the bottle! It wasn’t me, it was the inebriated me: a creature even I don’t recognize! It took Mel several more days—after it became clear that more substantive spinning would be necessary—to apologize to the Jewish community and ask for face-to-face reconciliation. (Oddly, Sugar Tits didn’t rate even a “Sorry, Toots.“)
At the other end of the celebrity food chain, blame-shifting card games fuel any number of low-grade reality shows. The token gay guy on MTV’s recent Real World season, the insufferably vicious Tyler Duckworth (apt name, that), constantly persecuted his roommates. “Svetlana’s like that bad puppy that pees on the carpet—she needs to be punished,“ Tyler sneered. “And that’s why I punished her.“ Yet when called on the carpet for his cruelty, Tyler broke down, crying that “we’ve all had our moments where we lashed out in the house, but to me, I’m very tender about the way people speak to me.“ Voilà! Tyler dealt the Gay Card. He’d been verbally bashed in the past, you see.
Ah, yes. The cycle of abuse.
Of course, Tyler had nothing on Omarosa Manigault Stallworth, from the first season of The Apprentice. She was the consummate reality-TV card-player, who flashed not just the Race Card (claiming a fellow contestant brandished “the N-word“) but, amazingly, the Disability Card: After she got brushed on the head by a falling chunk of plaster at a Trump construction site, she insisted that the resulting migraines hobbled her performance.
The Card game is on the rise in other fields, too. There’s sports: Somebody slipped me ’roids that I thought were herbal supplements! My masseur rubbed testosterone cream on me! There’s literature: My fabulism is just a symptom of my addiction! My plagiarism is just a side effect of my photographic memory!
And then there’s journalism: Remember New York Times “reporter“ Jayson Blair? The author of the unrepentant memoir Burning Down My Masters’ House, Blair was a master himself, playing not just the Race Card but the Addiction Card, too. Go, Jayson!
But mostly, of course, we see the Card in politics. And sometimes it almost—almost—works. Think of the white-hot minute during which former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey had us sympathizing with his “struggle“—when he pronounced, “I am a gay American“—before we realized he’d merely distracted us from the fact that he was fucking a patronage hire behind his wife’s back. (Apparently, “I am a corrupt American“ just didn’t have the same ring to it.)
Or think of Michael Brown, the criminally clueless former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who, a year after his disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, continued his extended blame-displacement tour by playing the Bad-Boss Card. FEMA’s response to Katrina, he told the New York Times last summer, was a calamity because Michael Chertoff, chief of the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t know “the first thing about running a disaster.“
Or think of President George W. Bush’s most recent take on 9/11. Did the tragedy have anything to do with his blowing off a memo that came across his desk in August 2001 with the headline BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO ATTACK INSIDE THE U.S. and details about “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings“?
Nope. White House spokesman Tony Snow, referring to our exit from Operation Desert Storm without toppling Saddam Hussein, told reporters in August, “When the United States walked away, in the opinion of Osama bin Laden, in 1991, bin Laden drew from that the conclusion that Americans were weak and wouldn’t stay the course. And that led to September 11.“ Remember who was president in 1991? There you have it, from President Bush II himself: the Bad-Predecessor Card and the Bad-Parenting Card, rolled into one!
As for the current Iraq quagmire, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s mismanagement of the occupation and his vast underestimation of what it would take to contain the counterinsurgency are certainly not to blame. Rather, in Rumsfeld’s infamous utterance, “Stuff happens.“ Shuffle the Metaphysics Card to the top of the deck.
Never mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s faded dictum “There are no second acts in American lives.“ There’s actually a specifically modern, uniquely generous American impulse to allow second (and third, and fourth) acts to enterprising losers. Grading on a curve, factoring in a handicap, and allowing plea bargains all speak to our contemporary, perversely elastic generosity of spirit. A culture that loves redemption stories must allow plenty of wiggle room at the moment of reckoning.
There’s a point at which that generosity of spirit—not to mention our collective suspension of disbelief—gets abused one time too many. But even then, partisans and other wishful thinkers are often willing not only to accept the card but to pretend that they’re not being gamed in the first place.
“The situation in baseball,“ says Seth Mnookin, author of Feeding the Monster, the best seller about the Boston Red Sox, “is different than in cycling, because the testing process is so opaque, and the results, until recently, weren’t made public. So unlike Tour de France winner’ Floyd Landis—where there was a huge amount of public evidence, and Landis looked increasingly stupid because of his shifting and preposterous excuses—for someone like Barry Bonds to deny using steroids by claiming he had no idea what was going on is oftentimes the fig leaf fans and the media need to ignore the issue.“ In other words, sports franchises and the fans who love them become so dependent on the performance (steroidally enhanced or not) of individual players that they’d accept any Card if it meant more home-team victories.
But for Tom Gable, the CEO of San Diego P.R. firm Gable-Cook-Schmid—specialists in crisis management—the Card simply has to do with “arrogance trumping good sense and traditional values,“ particularly when played in the public eye. Celebrities in particular, he says, are prone to “thinking they are above the fray, isolating themselves from the real world, and surrounding themselves with sycophants who encourage the foolishness.“
It also all trickles up from the lowest-common-denominator blame-shifting that’s rampant in American society, Gable says. “People screw up all the time and try to deflect, delay, pass the blame, sue, or all of the above. Is it someone else’s fault that you spilled hot coffee on your own crotch? Do we need warning tags on every electrical gadget to let us know not to use them around water?“
Increasingly, the pathetic answer is yes. In fact, the Ignorance Card may be the most obnoxious card of all. Just look at the lawsuit-mandated warning labels on the nearest appliance, or that Starbucks grande cup you’re about to toss in the trash.
Ultimately, it comes down to this, Gable says: “Only weak people play the Sympathy Card.“ Gable is paid big bucks to tell his clients that. Hopefully he’s really soaking the bastards who play the I’m-a-Weak-Person Card.