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Yankee Doodle Losers

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Message Steven Doloff

Yankee Doodle Losers

It has often been noted how a psychologically toxic "winner/loser" mentality in our country has possibly contributed to the social pathology underlying the actions of some of our recent "mass shooters." This may be a more insidiously ingrained American problem than most people realize.

Homer's Iliad illustrates how ancient Greece conventionalized the contest, or agon, (including physically violent ones) as a means to recognize, if not create, excellence--even value. Our own country, from its inception, adopted a radically harsher version of this principle thanks to the prevalent Calvinist belief, among its earliest English settlers, of "Predestination." This asserted that all people were predetermined by God to go to heaven or hell"literally born winners or losers. While this specifically theological concept may have faded here, Americans have still maintained a form of this binary fatalism ever since"a kind of tragic belief in an individual's essential "winner" or "loser" status while in this life.

Scott A. Sandage's eloquently powerful book, Born losers: A History of Failure in America (2005), lays out in fascinating detail how, as the U.S. evolved through the 19th Century into an industrial juggernaut, along with it developed a pervasive mentality of relentless professional striving as the requisite earmark of a truly unique American Yankee spirit. And, conversely, anyone who failed to demonstrate and prosper by such striving became looked upon not merely as the random victim of misfortune, but as proof of an innately ruinous deficiency of that uniquely American spirit.

Why else are some of the most revered American stage tragedies (think "The Iceman Cometh," Death of a Salesman" and Glengarry Glen Ross") about the poisonous self-loathing of American "losers"?

At the end of the Iliad, King Priam of Troy confronts Achilles, the Greek warrior who has killed his son Hector on the battlefield. Homer has these two deadly competitors, who both know that they themselves will soon violently die, feel a moment of totally unexpected sympathy for each other as doomed human beings, as if to point out that this empathic identification with one another is the price we pay"what truly is lost, personally and socially, in an isolating, ego-driven winner/loser universe.

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Steven Doloff is a professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute in New York City. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and The Chronicle of Higher (more...)
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