The Mania for Winning is Killing U.S.

In the little New Hampshire town where I was raised, there was one main activity that obsessed grammar school boys—and to be involved in it meant achieving a healthy measure of respect in the pecking order. It happened at recess every day. Kickball.

If you never been exposed to it, the rules are like baseball but the game is played with a heavy rubber ball that the pitcher rolls to the kid who’s “at bat.” The boys in my town were dead serious about kickball. So serious that they created official teams names, chose captains and near permanent players on those teams, and even prevailed on their parents to produce specially designed team hats so they could be worn around the school and during games. Badges.

I was a competitive kid. I loved playing kickball. The whole thing. The challenge of getting on base. The fun of dodging the ball (the way you throw someone out in kickball is to hit them with the ball). The exhilaration of making diving catches. But, I was a floater. I never joined a team or had an official hat. I was a nerd, way down in the pecking order. I was an oxymoron, a nerd who was good at sports and fearless on the field, so I always managed to play as a sub on whatever team was short-handed at the moment. For the time I was playing, that little sliver of the day that was recess, I lived at the pinnacle of southern New Hampshire boyhood acceptance. It felt good. Once the game was over, though, I went back to my previously designated station of lame kid who liked to study. It hurt, but I was stubborn and wanted to do my own thing, so I made my peace with it.

 

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There was a fringe benefit. Being able to slip in and out of grammar school cool gave me an unusually agnostic vantage point from which to see my nascent little society. Many observations and experiences have stuck with me from that time, but by far the most long-lasting has been an understanding of how badly people, particularly boys, want to be winners—whether they’ve earned it or not. Virtually every game I played, kids cheated brazenly. It was almost as if they couldn’t help themselves. They’d call balls out of bounds that were clearly in. Lie about catches. Lie about strikes. Lie about runs. At the end of each game, there was then this preposterous phenomenon. Both teams would throw their hands in the air with a triumphant cry: “We won!!” And then a blustery argument would ensue about who really won the game as we all walked back to the school building.

I could never go along with the program. I always knew who won the game and I’d say it loudly, even if my team didn’t prevail. This didn’t endear me my teammates who never, ever wanted to admit they lost. I hated losing too, but I hated cowardice even more and, to me, it was cowardice to cheat or to refuse to admit you didn’t play well enough to win. Now that I’m older, I have a certain amount of compassion for this competitive compulsiveness.

Because anyone who’s played sports and is honest with themselves knows a simple human fact. Not everyone is awesome…and not every team is great. For a kid (and many adults), that knowledge is very difficult to come to terms with. The consequence to one’s self-esteem in those uncertain formative years seems cataclysmic. For many, it feels safer to lie or cheat, to be a fake winner, than to absorb the truth of being ordinary or, God forbid, do the grueling, failure-laden work it takes to get truly good at something.

So much of this desire to believe oneself superlative is bedrock human stuff. But it’s also deeply cultural, deeply familial, and that makes it that much more powerful. There’s a reason this one scene from the movie The Breakfast Club elicits sympathy for Andrew, the jock character played by Emilio Estevez. We shouldn’t care about him, given his privilege and his abuse of those weaker than him, but we recognize the vulnerable, frustrated need for fatherly love that drives his aggression around the issues of weakness and winning.

I know this film is the whitest movie ever, but it does get at something, so I ask you to watch this scene before your read on:

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”

If you’ve spent any time around sports, you’ve probably heard this ubiquitous quote, if not at the very least been a party to the sentiment. Originally uttered in 1949-50 by UCLA football coach Red Sanders (though often mistakenly attributed to famous Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who made liberal use of the phrase), it’s arguably an attitude that’s transcended the world of sports and become a trait endemic to being American.

If you pay a little attention, you see this mania for winning manifest all over the place, not just in schoolyard games or teen movies. You see it in the parents who lose control of their minds when their children compete in anything. You see it in the way people ruthlessly backstab their colleagues in corporate careers. You see it in the way we measure ourselves socially against one another. There’s a reason why “loser” is one of the most hurtful non-racial epithets people throw at one another. You see it in the way the TV news media covers the contest of elections rather than the issues. You see it in the burning collective need many of our fellow citizens (usually white) have to proclaim the United States #1, the absolute best country in the world. It’s everywhere, this need for winning, as well as the need to shove it in the face of those we think we’ve aced out. No winners without losers, right?

This cultural obsession is part of the reason it resonated with millions of voters when Donald Trump told them:

“We’re gonna win so much, you’re gonna get sick of winning”

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Certainly, this was infantile grandstanding, but post-WWII consumerism has been infantilizing us for more than 80 years. Grown men now wear hoodies and call people names on Twitter and eat Doritos and collect sneakers in this country, so infantile behaviors become the norm.

Despite this conditioned infantilism, though, there does come a time for most people when they have to confront the disappointing fact that, in many facets of their existence, they’re not the best. They’re not winning.

As we move through American life, there’s a balm for this disappointment to be found in identifying ourselves with teams we think of as winners. Sports teams. Religious teams. Work teams. Ideological teams and, often most destructively, political teams—whose objective in this construct of winners and losers becomes to crush their opponents, by cheating if necessary.

This dynamic isn’t benign. If we have any genuine desire for democracy on this stolen continent, we have to recognize how dangerous this mania for winning really is for us as a people. 

Because democracy is about doing something collectively, working with one another to figure out how everyone can get an equal shot at developing whatever their particular potential happens to be. And that’s not a competition. That’s not about my team kicking your team’s ass. That’s about all of us winning together. That’s about one huge human team we all play for, whether we realize it or not.

What this means is that if I’m an atheist, I should be happy that a fellow citizen who feels a deep connection to Christianity has the opportunity to become a minister. If I love business, I ought to be thrilled that a fellow citizen who despises capitalism and loves growing things can get a living wage to work on an organic farm. If I’m a white guy who’s grown up in wealth, privilege and the best public schools available, I should fervently want money to pour into the underfunded schools of communities of color so kids I’ve never met can have a science lab as good as mine. If I’m a massive dude who’s never felt scared or weak, I’m thrilled that the scrawny kid across town, who spent his childhood getting beat up by his dad, has affordable access to mental health services so he can overcome his trauma and gain the confidence to pursue his dreams. Actively wanting the best for one another is part of what democracy is really about.

This isn’t just some kind of airy-fairy spiritual universalism. From a societal standpoint, it’s also extremely practical. Why? Because the people we see as not on our team, the people we may see as losers for whatever reason, don’t simply shrivel up and disappear. They continue to move through the world with us. And, if they have no shot at a decent life, or at achieving their potential and adding their talents to our society, they can easily become apathetic, twisted or misshapen. That frustrated potential always blows back on the larger community and exacts a cost.

For instance, if there’s no way for that kid to work on an organic farm and keep a roof over his head because we allow the government to direct our tax dollars to prop up factory farms that run the organic farm out of business, what bitter thing might he become? And what happens when a extremist group comes calling? If there’s no way for that abused kid to get affordable mental health services, what happens with those guns his mom keeps in the home he shares with her because he’s too debilitated to go out on his own?

You can play these scenarios out endlessly if you use your imagination. The point is, we affect one another. The atomization we perceive in our communities is largely an illusion made all the more vivid by the mental construct we have in our heads about who’s on our team and who’s not. Who we think is a winner and who we think is a loser.

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Yellow Vests

I’ve been obsessed this past week with following the “yellow vest” protests that are engulfing France. If you get away from the corporate media, there’s been great coverage all over the Internet. Bree Hood wrote a ferociously Howard Zinn-like piece about the protests just a few days ago. Economist Richard Wolff went on the ever-reliable Progressive Soapbox and offered up a very insightful perspective as well

For an American, one of the most fascinating and encouraging things about the burgeoning people’s movement in France is that the protestors comprise people from the left, the right, the non-political, the working class, the professional class, the young and the old. Despite whatever differences they have, they perceive themselves as players on the same big human team—and they’re acting like it.

This is a huge lesson for us in the United States. If we the people have any hope of overturning the powerful oligarchy that is hollowing out the country or of doing what it takes to survive climate change, we will have to first exorcize the demon within us all that, like Andrew’s father in The Breakfast Club, issues mangled screaming edicts of “Win! Win! Win!”

We have to abandon the teams that prop up our self-esteem and join the only team that matters—the People’s Team. As we limp into 2019, that’s the group I’d like to see kicking ass. But, I gotta tell you man, we need more players.

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