The bad news for black role models

No one says sorry these days - except condom-and-walnut Gladiators who take illicit drugs
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The Independent Online
The television Gladiator, Shadow, is found to have taken anabolic steroids. Not only does he lose his job, he apologises to all the children he has let down. But why must Shadow apologise? And why must he apologise to his audience, rather than, s ay, to his team or to his employers?

Nobody else is doing much apologising these days. Politicians would rather not. The captains of industry are utterly impenitent (there was one last week who made a remark of unexampled stupidity about junior hospital doctors; he was given repeated opportunities to say, sorry, that was just a stupid remark, but each time he opened his mouth it was simply to compound the felony).

In the world of journalism, by a startling and brilliant reversal, a journalist found to have taken money from the KGB received a public apology from the editor who felt obliged to accept his resignation. Overall, one might say, the culture of the apology is in decline.

And it seems odd that anybody should feel that there was so much riding on the behaviour of the Gladiators. They are the ornaments of a games show. They are not participants in some measurable sport, where serious records are being set and where one member's transgression can destroy the achievement of a team.

The physiques of the Gladiators are more ornamental than functional. Clive James once said of Arnold Schwarzenegger that he looked like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts. That's what the Gladiators look like, and I had always assumed that this effect was achieved, if not by steroids then at least by unnatural means of some sort.

But the promoters of the Gladiators are vulnerable to the accusation that, by pushing this particular brand of pseudo-athleticism, ever more youngsters will be tempted to take steroids. And so, to keep a clean image, they must introduce random testing, and they must be able to state with absolute confidence that none of their Gladiators has achieved the condom-and-walnut look by illicit drugs.

Once caught, Shadow was smart to make his confession quickly and fully, with an allusion to mitigating circumstances in his private life but without dodging in any sense the charge against him. No trundling of urine samples from appeal to appeal. Instead, he bit the sour apple of public humiliation.

But there is another side to all this: it is a black thing. Shadow must apologise because he is black, and being black and successful makes him a role model. That is why more important than any apology to management or fellow team members is the apology to the children he has allegedly let down by getting into a mess in his private life.

So this is a black thing and it is an American thing. By the very act of joining up with the Gladiators, Shadow has made a mental subscription to the culture from which it comes. Within that culture is the strongly-held view that young blacks from the ghetto tend to have absent fathers. The black role model is under a particular obligation to his young public because he is supposed to do a part of the job that their delinquent fathers failed to do.

This kind of role model is not necessarily someone who seeks to be exemplary. It is someone who is chosen as exemplary, maybe against his will. The press may decide you are a role model. The teaching profession or community leaders may decide you are a role model. You may set out to do nothing more than excel as an athlete, but find that becoming a role model is the price you have to pay.

And there is a difference between people who are thrust into the role-model role by community leaders who attribute to them an exemplary wholesomeness and those who happen just to become role models by doing some extraordinary thing. Mohammed Ali became a role model, but not for the press - that is, he refused to serve in Vietnam. He was an authentic hero.

A rap star may become a hero to his peers, both by a projection of the very opposite of wholesomeness and by the speed of his ascent to wealth and celebrity. One might say that his life is an act of protest against the role-model culture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of role models stands the august Cosby family, immensely wealthy, immensely wholesome, generous in their gifts to the community, super-abundantly generous with advice.

American television is full of shows which, while pretending to be situation comedies, are, in fact, advice comedies: purveyors of the kind of wisdom they fear may be lacking in their target communities. Roseanne pretends to be about white trash, but is really a propagator of state-of-the-art cracker-barrel philosophy of human relations. Niceness among the unglamorous is its theme.

The revolt against this culture may be seen in Absolutely Fabulous, which is ruthless in its mockery of the wholesome, and happily determined to go its own, self-destructive way. So Joanna Lumley became a real role model, but not in a context as desperate as the one provided by black America.

Oprah Winfrey, queen of the advice market, had Diana Ross on her show, and repeated many times over that Diana had been a role model to her during her days in the Supremes, when Oprah was growing up. And Diana fixed Oprah with a steely look, since it hadnot escaped her notice that Oprah was reminding the audience in no uncertain terms that Diana was very much older than she was. Thus one role model found a wholesome way of scratching the eyes out of another.

There have always been heroes - it is part of the definition of antiquity that there were heroes then. But role models differ from heroes in the sense that they have these modern pastoral duties to perform. Victorian culture was full of invitations to hero-worship, full of people who, say, lacked a satisfactory father or any sense of family stability. The family was then assumed fact. The example of the hero came as an addition to the diet - like Bemax on cereal, or a spoonful of cod liver oil.

The male role model is supposed to do his bit in restoring the damage done to children by absent, abusive or delinquent fathers. But this is a tall order. Surely it is hard enough being a father, let alone going along with this impossibly demanding role of universal substitute - the father who comes too late, when the damage is long done.

I hate the sanctimony of this culture, and I hate, too, the sense that when someone like Shadow falls from grace, he has broken the terms of his parole - as if all blacks in our world were on parole. They have raised themselves up (and that is commendable) by their efforts. But then - oops! They have broken their parole. Then the apology must be pretty convincing, if they are not to return to the shadows.

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