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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Schadenfreudian Slip

Sore Winners explores the Bush-era culture of gloating.



It’s a pity the Bush-bashing book genre is so dominated by screeds that have as much to do with their author’s vanity as they do with politics. Purchasing many of these titles can be more reasonably viewed as an act of political patronage than an attempt to learn something new. While this vitriolic oeuvre took its cue from the spate of titles birthed during those seemingly innocent years when Clinton-hating comprised an ideology unto itself, they’re hardly the most substantive reads. In the context of today’s polarized electorate—where pollsters claim only about 18 percent remain persuadable—a nuanced cultural revue of the last three and a half years that offers bitch slaps to everyone from milquetoast Democrats to robotic radicals along with its generally anti-Bush sentiment ... well, such a work seems destined to be pulped in the stampede toward partisan fervor.

Which is too bad, because Sore Winners is a great read—wickedly funny, but not at the expense of depth. Though it doesn’t contain much by way of new information, the analysis is first rate.

Powers—the resident media critic at L.A. Weekly who also pinch hits on NPR as a film critic for Fresh Air—takes his title from a term for what might be called the “cultural politics of gloating.” Being a “sore winner” is not limited to a president who has no compunction telling Bob Woodward that, “I do not need to explain why I say things. ... Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

No, in George Bush’s ugly America—or “Bush World,” as Powers dubs it—sore winners are everywhere. Take the NFL, where then-San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens busts a marker from his sock, signs the ball and hands it to his financial adviser. Or Random House’s CEO Peter Olson, who shamelessly brags to a New York Times reporter about the reams of people he has fired. And then there’s reality TV that—though often compulsively watchable—is rooted in humiliation. As Powers says, “Bush Culture has become one long ‘schadenfreude’ spree.”

The relationship between Bush World and actual policies are at times tenuously established, though it’s not hard to connect the dots between an administration that offers perpetual war with tax cuts, and a population bent on a myopia. As Powers notes, when Islamic radicals exploded a bomb at a Jakarta hotel killing 14 people, the news placed below Kobe Bryant’s first Colorado courthouse appearance.

Sore Winners is stronger in its casual observations than in overarching analysis. From a lesser writer, such an effort might grow tiresome; however, Powers packs more sense into a sentence than others can fit into an entire book. Discussing the post 9/11 mantra that “the age of irony is over,” Powers notes how such a statement is really indicative of the mainstream media’s tumor of sanctimony: “As the British demonstrated during the Blitz, you can fight the enemy and be ironic at the very same time; in fact, humor helped keep things bearable when the bombs were hitting London. Only dullards think you must be earnest to be serious.”

While Sore Winners is no more likely to partisanize a swing voter than the endorsement of Bea Arthur, it serves as a thoughtful and irreverent critique that holds a mirror to what American culture has become when ruled by a man who thought Friends was a movie, yet still manages to convince half the country that he’s a “man of the people.”

Only in Bush World ... SORE WINNERS (AND THE REST OF US) IN GEORGE BUSH’S AMERICA, By John Powers Doubleday, New York $24.95 272 pp.