Jemima Lewis: This heart-warming tale leaves me cold

We pine for a simpler life, and in outsiders like Jason McElwain we think we catch a glimpse of it

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You don't have to be a bad person to feel slightly queasy about the Jason McElwain phenomenon - though perhaps it helps. The autistic 17-year old was hailed as an American hero last week, thanks to his triumphant performance in a high school basketball match.

His tale is cockle-warming, no question about it. Diagnosed with autism at the age of two, McElwain has coped admirably with his condition. Known as J-Mac to his friends, he is a popular pupil at Greece Athena High School, in upstate New York. He is also a keen basketball fan, but at 5'6" was considered too small to make it into the school team. Instead he was given the role of "manager", watching games from the sidelines in a suit and tie, dispensing water and keeping track of the scores.

And then, a month ago, he got a shot at glory. In the last four minutes of an inter-school final, coach Jim Johnson decided to send McElwain onto the court. The game was almost over. Athena High was firmly in the lead, the boy deserved a treat - what harm could it do?

The next 240 seconds, filmed and then posted on the internet by an admiring spectator, have already become the stuff of legend. McElwain walked on to the court and calmly put the ball through the hoop six times: a feat that few professional players could manage.

When the whistle went, he was carried off on the shoulders of his team-mates. Within a week, the video of his golden moment had made it on to the national news. Dozens of film studios had begun bidding for his story, and President Bush had requested an audience.

And this is where my stomach starts to churn. Americans have a higher schmaltz threshold than most, but even they must surely have blanched at this shameless piece of political feel-goodery. George W - whose popularity with the voters is at an all-time low - summoned McElwain and his parents, Dave and Debbie, to meet him at a local airport in front of the press.

"As you can see, a special person has greeted me at the airport," Bush told the reporters waiting on the Tarmac, his arm draped over the shoulders of the young hero. "Jason, mind if I call you J-Mac?" McElwain, not unreasonably, replied that he did - but the President pressed on regardless. "I'll call him J-Mac."

This is the sort of treatment that "special people" often complain about: being ignored when they speak, and then being spoken about as if they were not there. When the President does it, however, it's an honour.

Bush then launched into the kind of portentous script more familiar from gravel-voiced movie trailers.

"Our country was captivated by your amazing story on the basketball court," he declared. "I think it's a story of Coach Johnson's willingness to give a person a chance. It's a story of Dave and Debbie's deep love for their son, and it's a story of a young man who found his touch on the basketball court, which in turn, touched the hearts of citizens all across the country."

The infuriating thing about this kind of political exploitation is that it immediately turns a feel-good story into a feel-sceptical one. Why, I find myself wondering, do tales like this touch our hearts? Is it purely because we are kindly creatures, and we like to see a vulnerable person overcoming adversity? Or is there - as with most outbursts of mass emotion - a more self-serving instinct lurking in the shadows?

Every culture has a soft spot for the idiot savant - the misfit who dazzles with some kind of instinctive talent. As soon as humans had a past to look back on, they were afflicted by nostalgia for a simpler age.

Oddballs and simpletons were regarded with a mixture of fear and envy, because of their imperviousness to the demands of sophisticated society. Their raw, untutored minds were - still are - thought to have some kind of hotline to the truth.

The idiot savant who had the biggest impact on the west was a fictional creation, now largely forgotten. Stultitia, the heroine of Erasmus's Moriae encomium, described herself as the personification of natural instinct. Human nature, she argued, was essentially good, and should not be curbed or denied. Self-love was a wonderful thing; pleasure was a virtue in itself; the heart should reign over the head; freedom was more important than rules or convention.

Stultitia set the template for just about every idiot savant in literature, and five centuries later, her ideas dominate Western culture. Being natural, unselfconscious, instinctively brilliant - these are the virtues to which we all aspire. But real life is never quite as simple as that.

In order to get on at work, and with the opposite sex, one has to observe a certain amount of convention. Engaging in modern society requires constant compromise; there are so many choices to be made, so many small but exhausting battles to fight. We pine, just as we ever did, for a simpler life and in triumphant outsiders like Jason McElwain, we think we catch a glimpse of it.

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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