WHENEVER ANYONE under the age of 50 sees old newsreel film of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak of 1941, he is almost certain to be brought up by the fact that nearly everyone in the male-dominated crowds–in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland–seems to be wearing a suit and a fedora or other serious adult hat. The people in those earlier baseball crowds, though watching a boyish game, nonetheless had a radically different conception of themselves than most Americans do now. A major depression was ending, a world war was on. Even though they were watching an entertainment that took most of them back to their boyhoods, they thought of themselves as adults, no longer kids, but grown-ups, adults, men.

How different from today, when a good part of the crowd at any ballgame, no matter what the age, is wearing jeans and team caps and T-shirts; and let us not neglect those (one hopes) benign maniacs who paint their faces in home-team colors or spell out, on their bare chests, the letters of the names of star players: S-O-S-A.

Part of the explanation for the suits at the ballpark in DiMaggio’s day is that in the 1940s and even ’50s there weren’t a lot of sport, or leisure, or casual clothes around. Unless one lived at what H.L. Mencken called “the country-club stage of culture”–unless, that is, one golfed, played tennis, or sailed–one was likely to own only the clothes one worked in or better. Far from casual Fridays, in those years there weren’t even casual Sundays. Wearing one’s “Sunday best,” a cliché of the time, meant wearing the good clothes one reserved for church.

Dressing down may first have set in on the West Coast, where a certain informality was thought to be a new way of life. In the 1960s, in universities casual dress became absolutely de rigueur among younger faculty, who, in their ardor to destroy any evidence of their being implicated in evil hierarchy, wished not merely to seem in no wise different from their students but, more important, to seem always young; and the quickest path to youthfulness was teaching in jeans, T-shirts, and the rest of it.

This informality has now been institutionalized. Few are the restaurants that could any longer hope to stay in business if they required men to wear a jacket and tie. Today one sees men wearing baseball caps–some worn backwards–while eating indoors in quite good restaurants. In an episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony Soprano, the mafia don, representing life of a different day, finds this so outrages his sense of decorum that, in a restaurant he frequents, he asks a man, in a quiet but entirely menacing way, to remove his goddamn hat.

Life in that different day was felt to observe the human equivalent of the Aristotelian unities: to have, like a good drama, a beginning, middle, and end. Each part, it was understood, had its own advantages and detractions, but the middle–adulthood–was the lengthiest and most earnest part, where everything serious happened and much was at stake. To violate the boundaries of any of the three divisions of life was to go against what was natural and thereby to appear unseemly, to put one’s world somehow out of joint, to be, let us face it, a touch, and perhaps more than a touch, grotesque.

Today, of course, all this has been shattered. The ideal almost everywhere is to seem young for as long as possible. The health clubs and endemic workout clothes, the enormous increase in cosmetic surgery (for women and men), the special youth-oriented television programming and moviemaking, all these are merely the more obvious signs of the triumph of youth culture. When I say youth culture, I do not mean merely that the young today are transcendent, the group most admired among the various age groups in American society, but that youth is no longer viewed as a transitory state, through which one passes on the way from childhood to adulthood, but an aspiration, a vaunted condition in which, if one can only arrange it, to settle in perpetuity.

<table style=”border:0px; padding:0px;”><tr><td><font style=”font-size:13px; font-family:Verdana; font-weight:bold; font-color:#293546″>New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu</font></td></tr><tr><td>

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“The Decision” was simultaneously the most painful and most hilarious television show I’ve seen in a long time. Its entertainment value rested almost entirely in its scope — the same way a person goes to the Niagara Falls or to the Grand Canyon for that take-your-breath-away moment when the heretofore unimaginable vastness of the vista is first perceived, I watched “The Decision” in breathless awe of the sheer scale of the narcissism involved.

By any measure it was a landmark moment in the history of human self-involvement, eclipsing previous peaks in the narcissism Himalayas (Nero’s impromptu fiddle concert as Rome burned, the career of the prophet Mohammed, Kim Jong Il publishing “The Popularity of Kim Jong Il”) mainly because it was a collective effort. You can understand the citizens of Tsaritsyn cheering the decision to rename their city; if they didn’t like “Stalingrad,” they were getting lined up and shot.

But what was our excuse? The weird thing about this LeBron story is that seven or eight years ago, he seemed like a nice kid. All he did was step into a media machinery designed to create, reward, nurture, and worship self-obsessed assholes. He was raw clay when he went in, and now he’s everything we ever wanted him to be — a lost, attention-craving narcissistic monster who simultaneously despises and needs the slithering insect-mortals who by the millions are bent over licking his toes (represented in The Decision by the ball-less, drooling sycophant Jim Gray). 

I’m sure there’s a larger point to make in all of this about how the insane pathology behind the LeBron spectacle (read: a co-dependent need to worship insatiable media-attention hogs gone far off the rails of self-awareness) is what ultimately is going to destroy this country and leave us governed for all time by dingbat megalomaniacs like Sarah Palin. But for now I think it’s important to just enjoy “The Decision” on a pure humor value basis, since we’re unlikely to see anything that funny for a good long while. To me, the Top Five moments:

1. So here’s LeBron James, sitting in a gymnasium full of children from the Boys and Girls Club, the charity that was to receive the proceeds from the event. Let’s note the first thing: LeBron had a full hour to say anything he wanted, and might perhaps have used that time to talk about the Boys and Girls club, which was conceived for the express purpose of helping kids who don’t have enough parental guidance — kids like LeBron, for instance (whose biological father was an ex-con who was never there). LeBron instead chooses to have a show entirely about himself filled with navel-gazing commentators raving over his highlights, followed by Gray and his idiotic questions about whether or not LeBron bites his nails. Then, when Gray finally gets to a question about whether it might be hard to share the spotlight with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron answers, “It’s not about sharing. You know, it’s about everybody having they own spotlight.” That’s his message to the Boys and Girls of America: It’s not about sharing! I exploded in laughter when he said this. Even funnier, nobody commented on it. I mean, what’s the problem? The kids got the proceeds, didn’t they?

2. The day after the show, I woke up and checked the Internet to see if “It’s about everybody having they own spotlight” had already made Bartlett’s quotations or something — it seemed primed to be turned into a famous line that encapsulates the mood of a country for a whole decade, sort of like “Tune in, turn on, drop out” or “Greed is good.” But when I Googled it, I found less than a full page of hits. Why? Because ESPN not only spent the whole evening shamelessly deep-throating LeBron, they fixed his grammar post-factum. In the official transcript, LeBron sounds not like stammering, uneducated buffoon he sounded like on live TV, but just like any other ordinary, more or less literate mass-media dickhead. Some of his malaprop gems will survive (“I want to win into the future”), but otherwise… apparently, fame is now its own spell-checker. Obviously this isn’t all LeBron’s fault — the guy didn’t go to college, after all, and he’s not being paid to be a public speaker — but this is part of the story, the fact that sports stars don’t need to go to school really at all anymore and can get to the pros by going to sham high schools that exist solely to crank out basketball players. But even that part of the story gets whitewashed.

3. Gray isn’t visible during most of the interview — thank God — but about five minutes into their talk LeBron glances down slightly, and suddenly I was conscious of feeling Gray’s off-camera eyes locked on LeBron’s crotch during LeBron’s answers. I burst out laughing. Overall, the whole scene was an uncanny replay of the Hot Tub Time Machine sequence in which the balding white Rob Corddry is forced to suck off black comedian Craig Robinson after losing a football bet. This has to have been the absolute low point in the whole history of the “interview,” right? Charlie Gibson’s 2008 Bush interview is a candidate, I guess, but this has to be the worst ever — especially when you throw in the fact that Gray was a) paid by LeBron to do the interview, and b) chosen because he has a “special sales relationship” with one of the sponsors, the University of Phoenix. 

4. When Gray asks LeBron, “Was it always your plan to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?” watch as he hedges for a second in between the words “Well,” and “I mean,” before answering, “Well, I mean, I’m looking forward to it. To say it was always in my plans, I can’t say it was always in my plans because I never thought it was possible.” In that one little hedging moment he starts, ever so slightly, to smile. And everybody knew what that smile meant: it meant, “What the fuck do you think? Of course, we’ve been planning this for years.” So he smiles, giving the deal away completely, then instantly switches gears and just turbo-lies right into the camera. I thought: this is just like politics! A terrible, totally unskilled liar, telling a completely transparent lie, who then improbably gets let off the hook by the sycophantic moron interviewing him. What is it about this story we love so much?

5. The camerawork was spectacular. The slow zoom-in leading to the EXTREME LeBRON CLOSE-UP during the key question — You’ve had everybody else biting their nails. So I guess it’s time for them to stop chewing. The answer to the question everybody wants to know: LeBron, what’s your decision? — if you’d asked a great comic film director to spoof reality-show direction, that’s what it would look like. But here’s the question: was this a spoof of reality-show TV, was it reality-show TV, or was this a society that can no longer tell the difference? Several times during the ESPN broadcast I got the sense that the network itself had lost track of where “reality” was. Were we really supposed to believe that this thing wasn’t decided ages ago, that Wade was seriously considering going to Chicago at one point, that the Knicks were ever in it, that LeBron was trying to convince Bosh to come to Cleveland? Of course not, it was all bullshit, designed to snare viewers, the grownups among us all know that. But the ESPN anchors looked like they were hanging desperately on every tweet, almost like they really believed this stuff. Poor Stuart Scott, he’s been podded completely, if you chopped that dude’s head off, nothing but little plastic balls containing digitized “Boo-yah” chips would fall out of his skull. It’s the prototype for all future news coverage — one or two dominant news networks pushing sensational fairy-tale versions of reality in a race for ad revenue, competing with a few scattered hacks on the Internet covering the much less important parallel “real story,” i.e. the truth. In order for the networks to push their version most effectively, they have to genuinely believe that what they’re spinning is real. Which is why you see them starting to mistake fake drama for real drama from time to time — they’re beginning to drown in their own bullshit. 

Watch and see if that doesn’t become the template for presidential campaign coverage in 2012. See if those reality-show zoom-ins don’t start to creep into interviews with candidates. This is the beginning of our big Lost in Space journey together, where news and reality-show programming fuse completely and we all end up complete morons, voting strippers and X-games athletes into the White House. I’m psyched. Are you?