Friday, February 3, 2017

Winning: What Does It Mean?

This is an excerpt from Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher © Charles D. Hayes

A few years ago, I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Among his guests were comedian Gary Shandling, actor Sean Penn, and former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee. They were discussing the war in Iraq, and Shandling suggested that we need to get beyond our “winner consciousness” regarding the issue of war. Penn seemed interested but remained silent. Harold Ford appeared mystified by the assertion, but I knew exactly what Shandling was referring to and have been thinking about it ever since. In short, winning is an inappropriate metaphor when it comes to war, and we keep having wars precisely because we haven’t yet figured that out. 

Speaking in broad terms, we have, as a nation, adopted something akin to “sports-think” in our conception of how most issues should be resolved. Winning has become a default position that stops further deliberation. There are winners and losers and no in-betweens. At first glance, the win-lose mentality appears to be a type of simple-mindedness born of a mediated society in which sound bytes serve in place of serious thought. But I suspect that something deeper fuels this type of thinking. It stems, in part, from what I call truth by association, which is an instinctual and tribal-like loyalty that says, “My side. Right or wrong makes no difference, but our triumph does matter because we are, after all, who we are.”

Here, winning asserts the legitimacy of the association, especially when “our side” prevails. In other words, we validate the truth of our superiority when we win. On the flip side, losing becomes personal, and loss implies we have been wronged. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of practicing truth by association. What has happened with the metaphor of winning is similar in some ways to what happened during the Cold War to the word socialism, which was stigmatized with such vehemence that even to raise the subject of economic equity is still, for many people, considered subversive.

The notion of winning, however, took the opposite direction from the word socialism. Instead of a negative connation, winning morphed into an aspirational ideal that is ultimately a dead end. Somewhere in the past century of American culture, victories in comic books, movies, sporting events, business, games, lotteries, politics, and the like converged into one all-purpose metaphor: winning, winning, winning. The coaches who have gone to the furthest extremes to make the point that nothing is more important than winning are often celebrated as being great.  

This popular internalization of winning has become part of our collective psyche. The significant emotional experiences we share tend to drive the metaphor of winning deep within us, and eventually we perceive that winning reinforces our association without qualification (when our team wins it is exhilarating), and the metaphor brings us closer together without need of further discussion. Moreover, most of us will respond to criticism of these seemingly self-evident truths with a deep-seated unwillingness to reason or give ground. In other words, in matters of conflict between our group and another group, the word win is enough to close off the conversation, as in enough said.

Combat experience in war may be the most extreme example of experiential emotional attachment. Men and women suffering the stress of war often bond emotionally to such a degree that their association will thereafter trump issues of right and wrong. I suspect that people who have not experienced these feelings can barely imagine what it’s like. A shared significant emotional experience imbues a strong sense of commitment and kinship. I’s become we’s in combat, and the fortunes of individuals give way to an emotional sense of camaraderie and attachment to the outfit. The rigidity of one’s position about the politics at hand during war is often driven so deep that, for some, reasoning about the issue with complete objectivity will never again be possible. 

Setting aside the instance of war for a moment, let’s consider an example in civilian life: cases involving criminal prosecution where people are shown to have been wrongly convicted. When the convicted party is found innocent by DNA testing and subsequently released from prison, the prosecutors who won the conviction more often than not continue to believe the person is guilty. Prosecuting someone involves internalizing the righteousness of one’s position; facing off against defense attorneys drives the prosecuting attorneys’ convictions so deep as to sometimes reside beneath the reach of reason. Enough examples of this exist on television news that one need not look very far to find them.

Another example is the racial prejudice that permeated life in the South during the twentieth century. I have first-hand knowledge of this experience. People of all races who believe passionately that they are free of racial prejudice will remain convinced that they are free of such bias in spite of the results of psychological tests that detect their partiality. Similarly, when profound emotional experience is internalized as feelings of betrayal, the resentment can last a lifetime. For example, an urban legend of Jane Fonda “gotcha missives” exist in the form of emails circulated frequently. These emails tell the story of how she was valiantly denied service in a steakhouse in Montana by a restaurant owner who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran still angry about Fonda’s pro-Communist actions during the war. Revenge brings some people vindictive satisfaction; it means they are winning, getting even, making up for having been deceived and betrayed. Better yet, revenge means a traitor is losing (in Fonda’s case, it was only a steak dinner, but she at least suffered humiliation). This kind of cultural behavior takes the place of rational discourse about war and justice. And yet, who could doubt the deeply felt emotional wounds of veterans who thought—then and now—that Fonda’s actions betrayed them? 

I was a hawk during the Vietnam War. Although I had already been discharged from a four-year hitch in the Marines, I almost reenlisted during the Tet Offensive in 1968. What stopped me was the fact I was single, still owned a home, and could not find anyone to buy it. But I have come to realize that, without the anti-war protest movement that recognized senselessness for what it was, we might have lost another 50,000 or so men and women to a war that, in hindsight, seems absurd. More absurdity occurs when people start railing about how we should have won in Vietnam. Perhaps winning would have made any future loss of life worth the effort. But win what? In an address to the Cato Institute, conservative activist Victor Gold asked the still-pertinent question that applies to both Vietnam and Iraq: “How do you win someone else’s civil war?”

A deeper examination of the concept of winning is critical here. The metaphysics of the idea of winning is so thin that, when you stop and give it some serious thought, it boggles the mind. One foot short of the goal, three inches from the cup, a foot from the hoop, a ball out of the park, or one punch can make all the difference in the world: one side wins, the other loses. The reactions of the participants and the spectators are radically different, yet they do not, in any real way, reflect the physics of what actually happened. Think about it. Nothing in the world is changed in physical reality except something did or did not happen with or to a ball. Now one group of people is beside itself with joy, and the other side is devastated.

How can this same pattern apply to war? How can winning a game parallel the winning of a war? “America 14, Vietnam 7” doesn’t work. Consider the number of deaths: 58,000 Americans; 1-3 million Vietnamese. Bedsides getting closer to reality, does that mean anything? The more you think about it, the more intangible and bizarre the notion of winning becomes. Scores and blood do not mix. One can receive a mortal wound and still have time to kill an enemy, but to say then that either side has won stretches the metaphor of winning beyond its true meaning. The catastrophic circumstances exceed our ability to comprehend what it means to lose anything. 

Just as the psychic investment of prosecutors makes it difficult for them to change their opinion about the guilt of someone they have sent to prison, imagine how the people feel who have lost family members to a war that others call a mistake. To think that a war in which a spouse or son or daughter made the ultimate sacrifice was a mistake, is emotionally untenable, and this adds legitimacy to any war. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—the circumstances post sacrifice don’t matter or, to be more precise, can’t matter without increased pain. The psychological result is that most people prefer to believe in the honorable sacrifice of their family member instead of questioning the circumstance of war. Asking hard questions after a personal loss in wartime results in further heartbreak. When one admits the illegitimacy of a war, the only alternative is to rethink one’s loyalties; rebuke one’s truth by association, if necessary; and redirect one’s sense of outrage at those responsible for the injustice—which makes this kind of action very unlikely for all but a few.     

Does imagining Jane Fonda being humiliated compensate for the perception that we lost the war? If we were keeping score on the basis of deaths alone in Vietnam, didn’t we win? Not to mention that we got into the war in Vietnam on false pretense, by claiming to have been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin. You see, truth by association trumps ethics. My country right or wrong means that our sins are justified and your country’s are not. It means we don’t need to make amends or apologize because our errors are beyond reproach. People who assume truth by association believe that anything they do to prevail is justified by the simple righteous nature of who they are. And this is why human beings are locked into a feedback loop of irrationality: hypersensitive to the transgressions of others and oblivious to our own, we generate the eternal justification for conflict. 

President John F. Kennedy said the war was the Vietnamese people’s to win or lose. But our strategic view at the time was that if Vietnam fell, a virtual stampede of countries would suddenly embrace Communism. Then Vietnam did fall, and nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. So, we must ask, was the war worth the deaths of nearly three million people? Vietnam seems to be a thriving country today, one with which we have resumed business relations, and, to my mind, the situation makes the frequent laments about having failed to win even more meaningless. Of course, many would argue that a number of citizens in Vietnam today feel oppressed by their government, but it is a grand illusion to assume that, had the South prevailed, there would now be a thriving American-style democracy in Vietnam. Fast forward to 2010, and we’re confounded by similar issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, both deeply divided by tribalism?

The conflicts of religious, ideological, and financial interests being what they were then, and still are, make establishing a democracy anywhere in the world a very tall order. The ability to perpetually balance power is very nearly impossible, even in the best of cases. Our own government is strangled by lobbyists in cahoots with our representatives, who are so beholden to various special interests that the majority in America has very limited influence. Yet we are sustained with centuries of idealistic notions about democracy and the rights of citizens.

The end-run philosophical threshold of winning at any cost is that it results in a perversion of us and them to such a degree that torturing prisoners is suddenly deemed okay. The historical records dating all the way to the Inquisition—suggesting that torture is ineffective and confessions obtained through torture are dangerously unreliable—don’t seem to matter. What our recent pro-torture policy achieved is to expose our servicemen and women all over the world to inhumane treatment by our enemies, who now feel not only justified but gleeful about the very opportunity and possibility of being able to torture Americans in the future. 

There is a huge metaphysical disconnect inherent in the metaphor of winning: racking up points on an electronic game offers an illusion of winning that does not transfer to the realities of war. The ephemeral consequences of winning in athletics are totally inappropriate for war. Even winning in sports events, when huge sums of money are involved, does not qualify as an analogy for combat. War is catastrophic change, writ in blood. It’s long past time for average Americans to think this conundrum through, to get beyond the consciousness of winning, as Shandling suggested, and to quit acting as the cheering section in a culture that behaves as if winning is a currency for endless incompatible assumptions and analogies.  

It’s unfortunate that we can’t discuss this subject without people getting red-faced and stomping off, mumbling clich├ęs about patriotism. Such a response demonstrates just how easy it is to resort to war in the first place. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we did not learn from our experience in Vietnam. But the proponents of winning a preemptive war in Iraq may have once again duped themselves. These same people incessantly champion small government, yet our bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan has so inspired the exponential recruitment of our enemies that we may never again be able to entertain having a small government with such a big threat facing us.

The yearning for small or limited government is understandable but only in an idealistic sense. It’s hard to be against limited government when you see your government as an oppressor. But what small or limited government really amounts to—in this day and age—is emasculated government, incapable of protecting citizens from a collusion of corporate interests whose lobbyists, in effect, purchase legislative support from politicians. A government that cannot protect the rights of citizens above those of corporations is not a democracy, nor is it a fair game.

Winning as a metaphor for games is appropriate, but for war it is insanely inadequate and morally bankrupt. Winning as a crossover to a war analogy is an anti-intellectual shortcut that eliminates thought about the very things we should think about. We need a political makeover in America. We need to understand the concept of winning in all of its manifestations, and we need to stop being consumers and reclaim our roles as citizens. This, in my view, is the only way for average citizens to win.

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