I wanted to show this to my students so we can have a discussion of the evils of lookism and their relations to questions of distributive justice -- but I cry every time I see it. Silly me. (Sniff.) So I didn't. Too embarrassing.
Like anything that is this emotionally deep and powerful, this event was symbolic. For me, it was a symbol of all who triumph over adversity, who start with nothing and achieve greatness, who face doubt and derision, create something beautiful -- and win!
But not everyone was swept away. A certain Mary Schmich asks, in this article in The Chicago Tribune: What if Susan couldn't sing?
If Susan Boyle couldn't sing, Simon Cowell wouldn't have stopped smirking; the spectators would have kept on snickering; and America's newest heroine would have gone back to her Scottish village to resume the life of an unmarried, unemployed, ungainly, middle-age woman who lives alone with a cat. In other words, without what we define as talent, Susan Boyle would be an object of mockery and pity.Wow. Way to rain on my parade, lady. Thanks a lot.
Actually, at first I just could not understand what she was trying to say. And I was stunned by the fact that the hundreds of comments on the Trib web site were overwhelmingly approving. "That's exactly what I was thinking!" "So true!" What the Hell are these people talking about?
I think she is probably reacting to things people have said about Boyle's triumph. Speaking to the Washington Post, Boyle herself said:
Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances. [...] There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example.When these immensely symbolic things happen, immediately begins the revolutionary struggle over control of the symbols. Arm for the next fight! Seize the means of the production of meaning!
Schmich doesn't want Boyle to have her don't-judge-by-appearances symbolism. Schmich is convinced, she tells us in her article, that people avoid sitting next to her sister on the bus because her sister looks, well, rather like Susan Boyle. If she had an extraordinary talent like Susan's, they would treat her like a queen; but she doesn't, so they treat her like dirt. The people in the audience were mean and unjust before they had the epiphanic realization, "oh wow, the ugly woman can sing!" and they are still mean and unjust.
Why do I find this attitude so obnoxious? There is, after all, more than a grain of truth to it. I suppose I feel that it threatens my triumph-over-adversity symbolism. But there must be more to it than that.
There is a habit of mind that I call moralism: that of weighing and evaluating things only in terms of moral categories and rules, especially ones that ground blame and guilt. Moralism, Nietzsche taught us, leads straight to nihilism, the radical denial of value.
Yes you can look at things this way, just as you can, like little Manfred Steiner, look at a beauty queen and see what she will eventually look like after being dead and in the grave for three months. No one can say the the facts you are responding to are not facts. But do you really want to go there? What good does it do you, or anyone else?
Poor Manfred Steiner was cursed with a clairvoyant power of seeing the worms and corruption toward which we are all creeping. But we have a choice. I know it sounds melodramatic and hysterical to put it this way, but I think it is profoundly true: It is a choice between life and death.