Friday, March 04, 2005

An Ode to Failure: Here's to the Great American Loser

(courtesy of Mason who emailed it to me, Jules who posted it on the MediaSquatters listserv, and Strange Proportion for a clean copy)

An Ode to Failure: Here's to the Great American Loser
The Economist

There will be plenty of cuddlier films at this weekend's Oscars than Clint Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby”. The film tells the story of a young woman, played by Hilary Swank, who escapes from a life of drudgery by spending her every spare hour in a boxing gym. For a while, it looks as if she is talented enough to escape. Then the fates deal her a terrible blow: she loses her championship fight, is horribly injured and persuades her trainer, played by Mr Eastwood, to kill her.

Dirty Harry's former friends on the right have reacted with horror to the film's unAmerican enthusiasm for euthanasia. In fact, the film is most remarkable as an extremely American parable on success and failure. When Ms Swank gets injured, her trainer is eaten up with guilt. But she tells him not to be so hard on himself: she is far happier to have tasted a little success and ended up a cripple than to have remained a nobody.

Americans have always been excessive worshippers of what William James called “the bitch goddess success”. Self-help gurus have topped the bestseller list since Benjamin Franklin published his autobiography. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to believe that people can get ahead in life so long as they are willing to work hard. And they are much more likely to choose a high-paying job that carries a risk of redundancy than a lower-paid job that guarantees security.
But you can't have winners without losers (or how would you know how well you are doing?). And you can't broaden opportunity without also broadening the opportunity to fail. For instance, until relatively recently, blacks could not blame themselves for their failure in the “race of life”, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, because they were debarred from so many parts of it. Now the barriers are lifted, the picture is more complicated.

All of which creates a huge problem: how exactly should a hyper-competitive society deal with its losers? It is all very well to note that drunkards and slackers get what they deserve. But what about the honest toilers? One way to deal with the problem is to offer people as many second chances as possible. In his intriguing new book “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America” (Harvard), Scott Sandage argues that the mid-19th century saw a redefinition of failure—from something that described a lousy business to something that defined a whole life.

Yet one of the striking things about America is how valiantly it has resisted the idea that there is any such thing as a born loser. American schools resist streaming their pupils much longer than their European counterparts: the whole point is to fit in rather than to stand out. American higher education has numerous points of entry and re-entry. And the American legal system has some of the most generous bankruptcy rules in the world. In Europe, a bankrupt is often still a ruined man; in America, he is a risk-taking entrepreneur.

American history—not to mention American folklore—is replete with examples of people who tried and tried again until they made a success of their lives. Lincoln was a bankrupt store-keeper. Henry Ford was a serial failure. At 40, Thomas Watson, the architect of IBM, faced prison. America's past is also full of people who came back from the brink. Steve Jobs has gone from has-been to icon. Martha Stewart has a lucrative television contract waiting for her when she comes out of prison.

A second way to deal with losers is to celebrate them—or at least sing about them. Perhaps in reaction to the relentless boosterism of business life, American popular culture often sympathises with the losers. In Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman” Willy Loman chooses to commit suicide rather than spend the rest of his life “ringing up a zero”. John Updike's “Rabbit” Angstrom is a lecherous car salesman whose best days were on a school basketball court. Scott Adams's Dilbert is a diminutive Everyman trapped in a cubicle. Where would country music be without broken hearts and broken-down trucks?

But even in the loser-loving bits of popular culture, the American obsession with success has a habit of winning through. More often than not, born losers turn out to be winners in disguise. In one version of this idea, the loser turns out to be a winner by virtue of his very ordinariness. The hero of Frank Capra's “It's a Wonderful Life” is a small-town plodder who hovers on the edge of ruin; but in the end the film concludes triumphantly, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
In another version—the one that burst on the scene with James Dean and was rapidly institutionalised by the counter-culture—the loser turns out to be a winner because he is a rebel against society's repressive norms. He is freer than the average American because he isn't encumbered with property (he has nothing to lose); or he is more genuine because he lives according to his own lights, rather than artificial conventions. Bob Dylan was a master of counter-cultural inversion. “The loser now/Will be later to win”, he rasped at one point. “She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all”, he moaned at another.

H.L. Mencken had a grumpy verdict on this attitude to success and failure: for him, the typical American was “vexed, at one and the same time, by delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex”. Delusions of grandeur are certainly common: “American Idol” presents a limitless supply of talentless narcissists, each convinced he is the next Frank Sinatra. Inferiority complexes are common too: America is also full of perfectly successful people who are obsessed by their failure to live up to their self-help manuals. But Mencken still seems too cynical. The worship of success inspires not just extraordinary achievements but also worthwhile failures. That is the unsettling but very American message of “Million Dollar Baby”.

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