One day my third-grade son came home with a big trophy.
“Congratulations,” I said.
“But we didn’t win anything, Dad,” he replied. “Everybody got a trophy.”
We start therapy early, don’t we? What happens when this perverse delight, this philosophical felony that everybody’s a winner seeps into the cultural soil?
It feels good, but it requires nothing.
Dumbledor, Hogwartz' headmaster, tells his star pupil, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.” That’s a lesson we seem to be forgetting in American society. Rather than talk about choice and accountability, we want to talk about what we’re entitled to. We want to talk about social injustice, the concentration of wealth and corporate greed. It’s true that our political and business leaders have abdicated their leadership responsibilities in many ways. But let’s not excuse ourselves.
Are we making good choices as individuals — good moral and economic choices? A national reformation must begin with a personal reformation. It starts when we look in the mirror. Let’s be completely honest about our own behavior before we start fixing blame on some contextual factor, such as social class, tax policy or the inherent flaws of capitalism.
“In an information age," Joseph Nye Jr. writes, “communications become more important, and outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins.” I’m afraid we’ve been telling ourselves the “everybody’s a winner” story long enough that we’re starting to believe it. It’s a seductive piece of propaganda. It’s a fraudulent brochure of the American Dream. It’s a down payment on failure.
Think about what this crowd-pleasing doctrine does. It provides psychological relief for personal failure. It’s a way to self-medicate. We’re building an empire of superstition when we walk around repeating it. The truth is that people lose every day.
To say that everybody’s a winner is to imply moral equivalence in behavior. It negates choice and preaches the self as the center of life. It leads to self-destructive behavior. Alcoholics are not winners. Drug users are not winners. Abused women and children are not winners. High school dropouts and pregnant teenagers are not winners. Millions of indebted and bankrupt Americans are not winning.
The cultural fashionistas scoff at traditional family values, calling them puritanical, parochial and provincial. That’s interesting. Where do the so-called enlightened values lead? We know exactly where they lead. They lead to misery. The results of bitter experience are their own stinging rebuke. Make no mistake: Libertine will never equal liberty.
What are we really doing here? It seems to me that we are repudiating the concepts of good and evil in order to transfer responsibility. We want permission to do whatever we want with impunity. Good heavens, Joe Paterno fans were protesting his ouster at Penn State with violence and vitriol and yet little boys have been harmed. When we can’t frankly admit that some things are wrong, we lose big time. As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, “Over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness.” We simply need more courage in the pursuit of truth. We need to clear the decks of our perilous self-deception.
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