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Why Do Americans Have to Crush Others to Get Ahead?

The competitive edge is always front and center in this country. But it's not the best way to run a society.

While I was watching a recent episode of America’s Got Talent,  I was reminded all over again of the power of the competition meme.  Were the contestants talented?  Yes. Did they sincerely hope they could find their way to fame,  fortune and escape from a precarious working class life?  To be sure.  Were the judges witty and clever?  You betcha.  Was the audience,  both live in the studio and on TV passionate and engaged?  Very.  Well then,  apparently the competition system is working just as the 1% wishes it to. 

The competitive edge is always front and center in this country. Football season is here.  And The Hunger Games,  the movie where things get really extreme is now out on DVD.  The Hunger Games is a movie worth seeing if you missed it and watching again if have already seen it.  It is a deeply subversive film that exposes the rigged nature of the system by which the one-percent rule and the rigged nature of the Hunger Games through which the system distracts,  manipulates and paralyzes the ruled. 

It is also a commercial blockbuster.  At least in part that’s because the movie—and the books on which it is based—connect with the American Idol,  DWTS,  Survivor,  Iron Chef have contest and conquest at their core.  

Is this an argument that all competition is bad?  No.  Competition is an intrinsic component of nature.  It’s essential to evolution.  That said,  how competition is managed is the hallmark of civilization.  

From the golden rule to the evolution of table manners we establish rules,  mores,  laws,  systems and structures to ensure that every human-to-human encounter does not degenerate into a literal contest for survival. And to the extent that “games” substitute for lethal human-on-human violence,  they are part of our evolutionary progress.  Plus,  sports and games can certainly be just plain fun.  

But as with a lot of things,  add in capitalism and the dynamic changes.  Capitalism glorifies competition.  And now that capitalism has achieved near world-wide domination,  we are engulfed in the manipulated worship of competition as never before.  Moreover,  as a species we have achieved a level of economic development that permits sports and entertainment to be a major component of how many humans spend time and money.  

Yet just as “a fish doesn’t know it’s wet,”  we are so immersed in the culture of competition that it’s hard to see it at all.  Power up the TV.  Then, turn on your inner anthropologist.  Observe how many TV shows somehow pit man against man, women against women, man-against woman…you get the idea.  Sports is a major category of televised competition.  Of the bazillions of channels available on cable and satellite, hundreds are devoted to sports.  

The economics of this is extraordinary.  Players, coaches, trainers, stadiums, equipment, satellite technology and all the rest add up to billions of dollars in economic activity.  And within the sports culture of competition is more competition.  Teams compete for players.  Cities compete for teams. Owners compete for public subsidies.  

Parents compete to get their children into schools and training programs they hope will turn them into mega income producing athletes.  Companies contend to pay millions in endorsements and sponsorships for athletes, pop stars and events.  The “draft” in various sports are nationally televised spectacles.  The ethics of major colleges and universities are routinely corrupted by money sloshing through the college sports system. Nations spend tens of millions trying to win rights to host the Olympics, soccer championships and other global events.

Now, pick up your TV remote.  Let’s look at some of the non-sports channels.  Close your eyes.  Pick a channel at random.  Chances are you’ll land on some amped up overt or covert drama of winners versus losers.  

Especially since we are in electoral High Season, particularly worth noting is the degree to which politics is now thoroughly integrated into this culture.  The more elections become completely decoupled from the real allocation of economic or political power, the more they become integral to the entertainment/sports eco-system.  Which Iron Chef will prevail?  Master Chef Morimoto Obama, or challenger Mitt Romney.  

And have you noticed how the “news” about elections is always the same?  The contest is always close.  Why?  Television and radio stations depend increasingly on the profitable airtime they have for sale to all sides.  They closer they make the election look, the more time they will sell.  Words like “race too lopsided in state X, campaign diverting funds to state Y,” strikes fear in their hearts.  

Turning our attention to print and other media we find more of the same.  Especially pervasive there is the proliferation of “list” culture.  Top five this and top ten that.  Who’s up, who’s down.  Anything and everything must be ranked.  AlterNet itself is fond of this approach.  And hovering over the whole system is, of course, NUMBER ONEISM.   

The enormous power of the foam finger notwithstanding, hyper-competition is anything but the whole story of our times.  One of the primary characteristics of the entertainment industry is its collaborative nature.  If you don’t normally watch the credits at the end of a movie all the way through, take the time to do so.  Modern filmmaking is a marvel of collaboration and the organization necessary to combine the skills and talents of hundreds of workers over years of effort from conception to theaters, DVD release and beyond.  The same is true of most of the global entertainment complex.  

Indeed massive cooperation, voluntary and enforced in various ways, is perhaps the defining characteristic of how global, capitalist hegemony actually works.  Many types of standardization are required to make the whole contraption function.  No shipping containers—no global economy.  Of necessity, containers must all be the same size so as to fit any crane, any rail car, any truck, any ship anywhere in the world.  

Likewise, there could not be thousands of daily airplane take offs and landings across the globe without agreement that all pilots and all air traffic controllers be able to communicate in English.  Global telecommunications also requires a high degree of standardization.  Much of the important scientific research these days is done by global teams.  The J.O.B. system of the employer and the employees predominates in most nations.  

To be sure, there are still plenty of conflicts and anomalies over everything from the metric system to meshing the complexities of languages, dialects, local cultural preferences etc.  The general trend however has been toward standardization, homogenization and cooperation.  Production becomes ever more standardized.  Marketing defers to differences.  

Another arena in which we are directed to at least the appearance of competition, is in the so-called “marketplace of ideas.”  In theory, we are told from childhood on, free speech and other liberal philosophies assure that there can be a vigorous debate about social, political and economic concepts.  As with other forms of competition, out of this process should emerge the “best.”  

In reality, something quite different happens.  Most of the time, power elites find ways to frame, limit and control the conversation.  Especially within the electoral process it is the superficial issues that get all the attention.  The eco system of the planet is at risk, capitalism itself is in permanent crisis, militarism is the true basis of our economy;  millions are incarcerated or otherwise tangled up in the criminal “justice” system of the US, civil liberties are under stress as they haven’t been since Jim Crow ended and virtually every day another city or school district slides into financial insolvency.  

Not one of these issues is seriously discussed by either of the mainstream candidates for president.  About the only questions allowed into the discussion are tax policy and “deficits.”  And even those are talked about in the narrowest of terms.  (For a broader perspective on deficit issues see David Korten’s America’s Deficit Attention Disorder.)

Central to the hyper-competition mindset is the eco-system of “choices.”  A recent advertising circular from Best Buy is a good example.  A headline says, “Choose Phone Freedom.”  The sub-head reads, “The freedom to choose ANY CARRIER, ANY PHONE, ANY PLAN with unbiased advice.”  The “choices” notion of freedom is deeply imbedded in our individual and collective psyche.  

After all aren’t there are hundreds of TV channels, hundreds of thousands of apps and songs and videos available on iTunes, millions of items for sale in retail, grocery and mega-stores?  Can we not pick from hundreds of post secondary schools and colleges and then thousands of courses within them?  Does this not prove that we need merely choose a satisfying career from a scrumptious smorgasbord of options?  And if a few degrees and a few years later we are out of school but unemployed, up-to-our eyeballs in debt and possibly homeless, does that not merely prove that we made “bad choices” at the buffet table?  

Other “choices” are framed by the great rivalries of our time.  We can pick between George Lakoff or Frank Luntz;  Romney or Obama;  Democrats or  Republicans;  climate changers or climate change deniers;  Limbaugh or Maddow;  Fox or MSNBC;  Iran or Israel;  i-phone vs android;  MasterCard or Visa...

Clearly competition is alive and well.  And as George Orwell might put it, surely competition is freedom.  Or as philosopher Frithjof Bergman puts it, more often than not, the whole thing is like asking a vegetarian if they would rather have a pork chop or a steak.  (Bergman’s book , On Being Free, first published in 1977, offers an excellent discussion of different theories and definitions of freedom.  It is available in many libraries.  Used copies can also be found in used book stores and on-line.)