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Mean Machine

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The Mean Season

I got my September issue of The Atlantic, and as I'm leafing through, I come across an interesting headline in the entertainment section:

TV's Angriest Man


With his latest reality show, Chef Gordon Ramsay extends his patented froth from the kitchen to the hotel business at large.

According to the piece, the chef is considered a perfectionist by some and a tyrant by others. But I think everyone would agree he has something of a mean streak. Keeping it real is missing in this nation, make no mistake, but there is a gulf between real criticism and Ramsay. He has spawned a lot of other mean jerks, including that woman that browbeats would-be dancers while cursing out their parents. It's all about being mean these days.

How to Make Money and Scare People

In 1926, Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People, which took great pains to preach being nice as a path to success. Admittedly, all his points aren't easy to follow, especially if you're a boss, but the principles are solid and still work... or maybe not. It's all the rage to be mean.

The PGA golf tournament was the last of the so-called majors in this year's gold season, and a guy in a red shirt ran away from the pack to score a record victory. In the process, Rory McIlroy cemented his claim to be best golfer in the game today. Golf fans are accustomed to another guy wearing red running away with impressive victories but that guy, Tiger Woods, was grouped with a bunch of other contenders. After the match, in an effort to explain why these major tournaments continue to elude him, Tiger laid out an answer that might have sent sports psychiatrists to their own couches.

"I was too relaxed and tried to enjoy it." Say what?

Watching the match on Sunday, I noticed Tiger was more cordial, slapping high fives and giving away balls, I just figured it was part of the rehabilitation process (the cynic in me thought some PR expert may have made the suggestion). So, what exactly was Tiger getting at with that comment? He added, "and that's not how I play." It's pretty clear that Tiger isn't talking about when he plays, but about when he wins, and what he is saying is "watch out world, I'm going to toss the nice guy stuff and get mean". Look for words you first hear from your uncle in the navy, and if you're in the gallery, be prepared to duck flying clubs and stray golf balls.

Tiger has come to the conclusion that you have to be mean to win, but he's not the only person with that formula.

One nice sports story this year is the rise of Andy Murray, the British tennis star that is finally living up to his potential. The only difference between the Murray of last year and the one that won gold in the Olympics, and came close to winning Wimbledon is his coach, Ivan Lendl. Lendl came from an era of mean tennis players, and now his infamous scowl beams down on his pupil, pushing him to win despite his otherwise sunny disposition. Of course, the season of mean goes beyond sports. I've heard the hype and seen a bunch of commercials where Britney Spears has brought an element of meanness to the talent show "X Factor".

In one ad for the show, it seems even Simon Cowell—perennial contender for the Mr. Grinch award—blushes at Britney's blunt delivery of criticism.

Make no mistake, the mean trend has emerged, and it's catching on fast. It seems to be the tactic for people with fading talent, unlocked talent, and just bona-fide has-beens to get back on top. The thing is, being mean seems to be working. The latest test for this growing mean phenomenon is the larger stage of politics. On that score, the Obama administration has tossed out the Marquis de Queensbury rules of engagement. Mike Tyson once threw punches with mean intentions, but at least the majority of them were head shots and body blows. In its effort to maintain the White House, the administration is now rarely aiming above the belt.

First an ad came that somehow claims Mitt Romney gave an employee's wife cancer and didn't care when she died. Then came the "chains" comments from Joe Biden where the nice white guy tries to warn the Negros of knight riders in the form of Republicans and the Tea Party waiting to turn back the time. Like that cancer commercial, Biden's comments were premeditated meanness designed to sting, maim and win.

With the economy stuck in the mud, and with no hope of turning around between now and the election, the game plan is clear. Make loud noises while bashing things like honor and respect, and do everything with mean intentions like the old Mike Tyson. Sometimes that approach works in sports and at work and even in relationships.

But, there is no doubt that while America has a fascination with the mean approach and mean people in general, in the end we like nice people more.

Even in this, the meanest presidential election ever, we will be reminded that nice guys with real economic plans finish first.


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