Success

Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter is taking a lot of heat for remarks he made last year at an NFL rookie symposium. You’d be hard-pressed to overstate how bad they were – Carter counseled rookies to find a “fall guy” in case they got in trouble with the law. The video of Carter’s remarks was sitting on NFL.com for over a year, before someone thought to take a peek a few days ago. Needless to say, the NFL took it down fast once its content was made public. At Awful Announcing, Matt Yoder has a good, detailed dissection of the mess.

I generally like Carter. I find him to be, on the whole, bright, entertaining and, when he’s talking about the particulars of playing football – from preparation to game-action – quite insightful. But there’s a larger issue that the controversy over the leaked video (and Carter’s abject apology) touches on. For lack of a better phrase, it’s the cult of success. When someone is successful in one area of life, something unwarranted often happens. They take on – and have conferred on them – standing to hold forth on a whole range of issues about which they’re really not all that qualified to speak. When it comes to specific content areas – a lawyer trying to talk as if he’s an expert on medicine – that’d get exposed pretty quickly. But on more general moral and ethical questions, there exists what, to my mind, is an unhealthy tendency to assume that success in a specific competence – whether running Domino’s Pizza or playing football at a high level – translates into greater insight into the human condition than that possessed by the first 400 people in the Boston white pages (I swear, this will be my only William Buckley reference).

Carter, to be fair, was talking to football players about the perils of life in the NFL, an arena in which he does have real experience and expertise. And his own battles with addiction would have made him a logical candidate to share a cautionary but ultimately redemptive story with young guys. But the larger tendency to impute to people who’ve made a lot of money – really, just because they’ve made a lot of money – some greater authority to hold forth about how the rest of us should conduct ourselves is wrong-headed. It confuses circumstance and specific skill-sets for something much more amorphous – “character.”

Its reductio ad absurdum is Donald Trump, whose very clownishness holds a mirror to the more subtle, but pervasive tendency endemic to societies where accumulations of material wealth are so valorized.

Adam Smith had something to say about this, over two and a half centuries ago:

“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy, the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of [85] wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity; the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline; the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer.”

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