In Defense of Losers

For years now, I have chafed under pronouncements about people regarded and relegated as “losers.” Only the other day in a conversation about Leif Ericsson and his crew’s reason to leave Norway for America, they were called a bunch of “desperate losers.”

Losers? As a Norwegian descendant, my gorge rose at this affront to the highest order of global explorers. In the early tenth century, their seamanship, constant dangers, and teamwork (72 oars on a 120-foot open longboat) overcame fears of the unknown in the frigid and perilous pounding of the North Atlantic’s winter seas. It took Columbus, 400 years later, to make his crossing in calmer, warmer waters via a covered, full-masted, three-ship convoy – and with a compass no less.

Yet most of us have similar views when the need arises to feel superior to our fellows. Radio’s Garrison Keillor nails us in describing the imaginary Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon: “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Who among us wants to be average? Or win an “honorable-mention” certificate? Or be known as a “has-been” or “never was”?

Now, we closet snobs probably got that way largely because early in life some role model taught us that putting someone down was somehow elevating. It was bolstered by popular axioms: If we lay down with dogs, we’d get up with fleas. We were known by the company we kept. Birds of a feather flocked together. Nice guys finish last. Winners choose “wine, women, and song”; losers, “beer, Mama, and the radio.”

Haven’t millions of teenagers spent almost every waking hour – and broken their hearts – vainly trying to crack the “top tier” of high school society? God forbid they ever fraternize even at 35th class reunions with the bottom tier. Not even if one of those losers became President, or the nation’s first self-made billionairess, or a film star with decades of sobriety via Alcoholics Anonymous.

A scholarly search for the definition of “loser” in the top-drawer (naturally) dictionary says such an individual is: “… incompetent or unable to succeed…[someone] doomed to fail or disappoint.” In Yiddish, the term is nebbish, “a timid, meek or ineffectual person.” Mercifully, neither definition includes those fated with physical shortcomings, though millions would include the fat. Don’t they tune in to the popular television show The Biggest Loser to laugh at those trying to shed at least 100 pounds?

“Loser” also covers hundreds of the renowned in any field: President Chester A. Arthur, presidential candidates Al Gore and Harold Stassen, writers Edgar Guest and Daphne du Maurier, musicians Irving Berlin and Guy Lombardo, art’s Norman Rockwell, high roller Bernie Madoff, and skater Tonya Harding. Unfortunately, “loser” is mostly applied to ordinary people vainly reaching for those brief twinkling stars in any endeavor – medicine and high technology to spelling-bees, junior-varsity football, and Academy Award dress designers. And no matter how captivating, sore losers (“I coulda been a contenda”) are at the bottom of the heap.

A recent check of the number of “hits” for “winners” on Google’s search engine came to 641,000,000. For “losers,” 96,700,000. Quotes about winners also outnumbered “losers” by about 100:1. Nevertheless, my favorites defending losers were:

In the game of love, the losers are more celebrated than the winners (Mason Cooley).

Without losers, where would the winners be? (Casey Stengel)

Maybe the truth is, there’s a little bit of loser in all of us (Ann Bashares)

God must have loved common people [aka “losers”] because he made so many of them. (Abraham Lincoln)

That Lincoln’s remark is quoted a thousand times more than any for winners should outweigh that 100:1 statistic. He obviously never forgot that his impoverished beginnings branded him as “loser” perhaps to schoolmates with lunch boxes and more than one pair of shoes. He may have comforted himself in remembering that this nation’s foundation was laid in a harsh environment amid natives made murderous about being driven from their lands and wild game. Most settlers of the early 1600s were considered desperate losers in their homelands: religious or political refugees, the hopelessly indebted, the homeless, and petty criminals, including a 10-year-old girl who stole two spoons.

In the New World, the playing field was said to be level. It was the land of starting life anew for those willing to work hard collectively – and buttressed by group commandments such as “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Most were forced for once to ignore class distinctions and huddle democratically just to survive. Fighting death from starvation, illness, or “Hostiles” was no time to rank fellow humans as losers, especially when the pecking order might suddenly reverse itself under changing conditions. Any distinction was likely to be between the greedy and generous, the brave and the cowardly.

Unfortunately, equality around the campfire quickly vanished with subsequent waves of immigrants once the vestiges of Old World civilization materialized.

The Colonies were flooded with self-styled elitists and their sycophants: speculators with enough political clout to wangle crown charters to Indian lands. Wealthy and wannabe-wealthy adventurers. A sprinkling of military officers (always above lieutenants) aspiring to high positions such as Governor. Disinherited layabouts subsidized by the high and mighty in the Old World. Pirates, gamblers, Congregationalists and Church of England types. Close on their heels came tinkers, tailors, candlestick makers – and their families – bent on improving their lot in life.

Most of the heavy lifting was done by the New World’s newest class of losers: indentureds in the North, slaves in the South. They cleared and planted crops, built the cabins, churches and roads, and did the skut work in shops and kitchens of their “betters.” If luck or pluck turned them into wealthy landowners, shopkeepers, and legislators, their betters once again had callous and cunning ways to keep them – and their descendants – in their place.

In short, the medieval world’s rigid caste system of the Great Chain of Being had come to America. Instead of kings and queens at the top and gypsies and pirates at the bottom, the top tier was inhabited by the few landed gentry with the university educations and “good breeding.” As usual, the many were just a notch above livestock and plants: The luckless, landless, illiterates -and “dumb brutes” described in Edwin Markham’s poem “Man With the Hoe.”

They were kept economically powerless by those controlling the money supply and land and just as politically impotent by laws limiting voting to white male property owners. Education was mostly beyond their grasp in dawn to dusk work routines, as it had been for serfs in feudal Europe and Britain. The “low-born” Thomas Paine, one of the Revolution’s greatest heroes, certainly was not a regular at Mount Vernon or Monticello. Neither was the “nouveau-riche” Benjamin Franklin, especially because no gentleman would have written a rags-to-riches autobiography. Nor would he have had a ragged past to begin with.

One individual with a questionable heritage, but brilliance in economics – Alexander Hamilton -was made Treasurer by this newest set of aristos. They attempted to destroy a log-cabin military genius – Andrew Jackson – as the successor to the Continental royalty of Washington, Adams father and son, Jefferson, and Madison. The social clash between them and the up-from-the-bootstraps types was painfully depicted in Henry James’ novel The American. In it, a successful St. Louis pots-and-pans salesman tries to court the daughter of impoverished nobility, but has three strikes against him: He’s an American, a commoner, and, worse, he’s in “trade.”

At the same time the “old-money” ruling class was deciding who would sit below the salt at dinner parties, another kind of hierarchy began developing in the 1800s, thanks to a growing meritocracy of clever and ambitious commoners in financial, industrial and mercantile enterprises. They might not send their sons to Oxford or Harvard or aspire to plantation plutocracy, but they taught both sons and daughters that money and property set them far above losers. The real American Dream was for opportunists only, permitting them to claw their way “to the top” if they were willing to do virtually anything to anyone blocking that path. And never, never listen to talk about scruples.

Meritocracy was chiefly the philosophy of public schools whether in 1800 or 2013, subtly reinforced at the end of high school by the person voted most likely to succeed, in university graduations by whoever becomes magna cum laude.

It starts in first grade when John and Mary are the first to solve an arithmetic problem. Speed always counts in math for some unknown reason. If it didn’t, most hands would be in the air. And so it goes with reading when the stellar are separated from the slow. In recitations, showboaters outrank the shy. Meritocracy rules in science. In geography. In composition. Especially in athletics. Even in music classes where too often the love of singing is squelched by the heartlessness of separating out those with perfect pitch from those with relative pitch or, worse, the tone-deaf.

Here is where the seeds of revolution are sown not just between left- and right-brained youngsters, but because math and science for nearly three centuries have been considered academically superior to any other discipline. It’s bootless for the defiant undergraduate taking “bone-head algebra” for the second time to declare that math/science smarties require something exact and tangible because they are insecure and have no creative or social skills – much less souls.

The truth is that from kindergarten on, most kids look around such classrooms and sense they have a lot of company in the losers’ circle. They usually form a silent community against “favoritism” by Teacher. Sneer “Teacher’s Pets” at John and Mary during recess. Those two learn that ostracism can be so painful that the next time competition rears its seductive head, at least one of them will make little effort to be the best in-show-and tell. And be punished a second time for not working up to potential. The other will obediently follow orders to ignore shunning from those who’ll be laboring at WalMart while s/he are earning fortune and fame.

Meritocracy’s dangers were pointed up recently by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He indicated that America’s ferocious penchant for competitiveness in politics almost always leads to corruption, crime, cruelty, and sociopathic disinterest in others. Ultimately, it brings on an oligarchy with all those embedded and ugly characteristics. He wrote little about financial competitiveness, but it’s now clear the “smartest guys in the room” are bankrupting the republic as well as destroying land, water, and air – and eventually most people, particularly the millions they classify as losers.

Up to today, meritocracy’s Machiavellians have taken delight in forcing the Mayflower’s First Families to serve as window dressing for backroom manipulations in banking, industry, transportation, real estate, and politics. Their hirelings have largely controlled regulators, too many courtrooms, Congress and legislatures who, in turn, seemingly controlled everything and everyone else. Most “losers” on the receiving end of both high-society disdain and contempt from high-handed robber barons don’t want to rise up and destroy both classes, however. They want to live like them, as any credit-card company and bankruptcy court can attest.

But history also attests that those considered losers will take to the barricades when jobs end, bread runs out and they have nothing to lose.

We are only a few centuries away from the ferocious and bloody French revolution against the Bourbon dynasty and that of Russia in overthrowing the Romanovs. The prospect of a revolution in this country seems to be the only thing feared by both sets of elites who have with impunity “betrayed, plundered, profaned and disinherited” those they regard as losers, as Markham put it. What will these elites do, he wrote prophetically “when whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?” Elites know that traditionally, rebellions are led by well-educated twentysomethings who have the time, energy, creativity, and charisma. All it takes is a spark to set it off.

The bank-caused Great Recession of 2008 was such a spark, though it smoldered for three years before exploding into the Occupy Wall Street movement in October 2011. In an instant, millions were on American streets chanting “Banks Got Bailed Out. We Got Sold Out.” The movement spread around the globe, via the Internet, and shook the financial world.

The next blow came in November when Occupy urged people to move their money out of the Banks-Too-Big-To-Fail. Within 90 days, 5,600,000 did. Bank of America, for one, suffered a 20% increase in account closures. By June, a banking poll showed that 11% of depositors planned to switch within the year, moving $675,000,000,000 to small banks or credit unions. Estimated customer loss for Bank of America: 21%; for Citibank: 25%. Millions more may follow because rumors are spreading that if the big banks fail again, the government will balk at another bailout. So to obtain new billions, they’ll take a percentage of depositors’ monies. If they go bankrupt, only creditors will be reimbursed – and because depositors are non-creditors, they’ll lose every dime in their accounts.

What is equally troubling about meritocracy and Society’s so-called “uppercrust” is when talk begins that losers take up valuable space on Earth, especially if global warming means water and food will be available only for a few. Abortion, sterilization, or death from governmental austerity might be preferable to losers continually reproducing themselves. But that might take too long. Extermination would be quicker for those viewed as disposable and expensive, undeserving, “useless eaters,” as one Nazi war criminal described losers. After all, they reason, hasn’t the human race existed because of the survival of the fittest?

That term was coined by naturalist Charles Darwin in Descent of Man. But the book has been deliberately misinterpreted for decades by those with a bias for eugenics. A careful reading reveals Darwin believed that ultimately humans have survived only because of the instincts of sharing and compassion. In prehistoric times, it took a group – not an individual – to bag large and ferocious game for a village. Woe betide those hanging back in the hunt or attempting to take more of the carcass than their share. One Darwin expert recently pointed out that the book’s key passage was:

Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.

Yet cooperation to those fixated on maintaining competition is seen by elitists as the last refuge of those regarded as losers. They refuse to acknowledge that nuclear weapons, the Enron debacle, bankster robberies, and now the unstoppable global warming are all collective fruits of a meritocracy gone haywire, thanks to their view that the rest of us will be just so much collateral damage. As their Congressional servants now prepare Stage I of wiping out the least desirable with a budgetary snickersnee, academic observer Henry A. Giroux recently climbed to the barricades and warned:

…instead of fostering a democracy, [the elite] encourage a political and economic system controlled by the rich. Instead of a society that embraces a capacious social contract, they give us a social order that shreds social protections while privileging the wealthy and powerful and inflicting a maddening and devastating set of injuries upon workers, women, poor minorities, immigrants, and low- and middle-class young people. Instead of economic and political stability, they give us uncertainty and precarity, a world turned upside-down in which ignorance becomes a virtue and power a tool for ruthlessness and privilege rather than a resource for the public good.

Fortunately, along with the Occupy movement, we losers have a few things going that may bring about a non-violent revolution for the better. It may even stave off the ecological Armageddon if governments wrest control of those making fortunes off destroying the environment and, thereby, life on Earth.

One major shift from economic meritocracy is the rise of cooperatives. More than 30,000 now exist with over millions of members spread over the main categories of employees, producers, consumers, and shared services/purchasing groups of small businesses and municipalities. They range from most of America’s 2,000,000 farmers and 7,500 credit unions (91,000,000 members) to electricity and telephone utilities (42,000,000, 1,200,000 subscribers, respectively), and insurance policyowners (233,000,000).

Co-op costs are far lower than those of private companies. They have no multi-million-dollar bosses, executive suites, jet planes, or expensive quarters. The democratic policy of “one-member-one-share-only” means total equality in decision-making which usually reflects majority views what benefits members. Its executives and board are members, elected by members. As one observer said: Cooperatives are “based on the ideas that all people have talents that contribute to the greater society and that we are mutually interdependent.”

Communities also benefit, particularly with public utilities, as is the case for 2,000 municipalities large and small. Users pay about 14% less than with a private monopoly. The average percentage of revenues paid in taxes to a town or city is now about 5.2%, as opposed to 3.9% from private utilities. Big banks stopped scoffing at credit unions by January 2012 after more than 1,000,000 of their depositors moved their accounts to CUs for safety from “casino operations,” knowing that their money had a protection guarantee up to $250,000. They also now could get car and home loans, and at low interest rates – and access to ATM machines.

Another, often unheralded and major factor against elitism of any sort has always been alive in America. That’s the decision to opt out of what is plainly a dog-eat-dog life and, instead, to pursue cooperation and fellowship just as in those early days of basic survival. This despite rowing upstream against the American Dream. It’s done by youngsters and also by adults who’ve come a cropper with meritocracy or been blackballed by America’s aristocrats.

They’ve weighed the Dream’s prohibitively high and, often brief and tragic, price and found it wanting in energy, time, money, intimacy, sanity, and spiritual health. Some of the questions they asked themselves were obvious: Did they want to play as a team or rejoice in vanquishing a competitor? Did they want to be friendless and constantly complaining about how lonely it is “at the top” among their trophies? Did they want to be afraid someone was gaining on them? Or that they’re slipping a notch or two? Did they have the insatiable hunger for prestige, popularity, praise, and the need of sycophantic support systems? Would they go into a suicidal depression if any of meritocracy’s “rewards” disappeared?

On the other hand, if they fled from the “rat race,” they would have time to smell the roses, enjoy friends and family, and deal with others as respected equals. They would learn how to shrug off a setback or sling a sandbag as a team member if a river rises. Be able to “walk in someone else’s moccasins.” As one source puts such values, they could opt: “…to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful and kind member of society.” It’s always ironic that in the corporate world, management lays great emphasis on teamwork – but not from its executives. They are busy acing out competitors for the company’s top slots, eye-popping salaries, and benefits – plus the corner office with the spectacular view. Teamwork is relegated to the obedient, minimum-wage worker bees rowing the galley. The losers.

To shun the American addiction to competition and aversion to being perceived as a loser takes enormous courage today, particularly when a President has decided that public school funding from the government depends on the outcome of students’ test scores in a “race to the top.” And the emphasis is on math and science, not literature or ethics. Specialists, not generalists, are what are needed and wanted in this country.

But everyday, thousands upon thousands of such specialists and top dogs in that dog-eat-dog world have recognized – and shuddered – that changes are extraordinarily rapid in whatever they do for a living. Shifts come through generational changes in technology and science, business and industrial mergers, sudden death of products, the fickleness of consumers – or far more likely, that younger, brighter, and tougher competitors have snatched their jobs. Unemployment isn’t exclusive to losers, especially after age 40.

And when it happens, they may realize that being a loser isn’t everything, it’s perhaps the only thing that humanizes us. They can either choose solitary confinement in self-pity or join the millions around that symbolic and ancient campfire of sharing whatever we have and caring about each other. And be grateful we have escaped the joyless, lonely and unending race-to-the-top of either meritocracy or the exclusionary den of social lions.