Winners and Losers: Competition in the American Psyche
Somebody’s Gonna Win, Somebody’s Gonna Lose
Winners and losers. That’s the name of the game.
“American Idol” certainly tells us that. American coffee-shop customers watching the bunched up “Tour de France” cyclists on the winding, stretches of a two-lane highway in the Pyrenees tell us that. The swift-footed American FIFA soccer team tells us that. The sweaty and bulky tv wrestlers certainly tell us that.
And the electoral college, what does it have to reveal? Well, no Spoiler Alert there: Somebody’s gonna win. Somebody’s gonna lose. Or as one tv contestant said, “Second’s not fun. First is what it’s all about.”
So, what is it about this pursuit of winning? This mania to be at the top of one’s game? This drive for a promotion or a bonus. This need to pass the car in front of us on the Interstate 5? This compulsion to get another right answer?
“Chopped,” An Allegory of American Obsession With Competition
As I perform my nightly old-man-before-bedtime ritual of channel surfing, I’ve begun to notice how many channels are devoted to what I call “competition rituals.”
In nervous disbelief, I watch chefs on a popular Food Channel show, “Chopped,” frantically stirring, frying, sauteing, chopping, boiling, pureeing, mixing, spoon-tasting. Or sprinting to the refrigerator. Or darting back and forth between a counter and a stove top, sweat pouring down their foreheads, eyes bulging, teeth clenched, jaws tightening.
The camera shots also convey the sense of high, fast-moving drama. Up close face shots, wide-angle shots putting all the chefs in a single frame, hand-held camera shots of chefs pinging the last sprig of garnish, the pièce de résistance, on to a wished-for masterpiece.
The chefs know that one of them is going to win the competition. And the simple math should tell them that two or three of them are going to be “chopped.” Oh, and did I say that the competitors are always in a race against the clock? There’s always some guy telling them how much time is left. (Why is it always the “guy” who’s in charge of the time?).
At various intervals the Armani-dressed clock-watcher tells the contestants, “five minutes left, chefs.” And then in the last ten seconds, the urgent countdown, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2,1. Stand back, please.”
The next stage is for the chefs to stand, almost penitently, in front of a three-panel group of judges who taste the mélange of delights the chefs have put together.
If you like language, the judges—all chefs or high-end restaurateurs—seem to have been linguistically trained to find the mot propre, as the French would say. A little, over-the-top artificial, of course, but always du rigeur. You might hear one judge wistfully say, “Chef Jeanne, I thought the red pepper was a bit too nuanced.” Or another judge, “the mashed potatoes were too dominant.” Or “the color tones were too clashing.” Or, “the onions fused so gently with the pork.”
Well, there you have it. One of the chefs is going to walk off with the $10,000 prize.
Catch the pattern here? Contestants; a challenge (mystery ingredients); a panel of judges; a time limit; a prize. Competition 101, folks. Oh, I forgot: frenetic camera shots with a sprig of dramatic music (Hollywood also loves music background for what one critic called the “emotionally challenged.”)
It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, if all our competitive challenges came with an iPod selection of our favorite rock bands, just to keep us in the rhythm of our daily steeple chases.
Competition: We’re All In On It
But they don’t. We are stuck, it seems, in the soundless whirlwind of moving up and out. Wherever that up and out is. A new house. A new down-payment. A new mortgage. A new monthly payment on a fully equipped Land Rover. A new wireless 40-inch flat screen in our new paneled den.
With every new purchase, most of us don’t realize that we are competing to buy something better than the guy across the street. Or we have bought into the advertising messages that anything “new and improved” is going to beat out the “old and the tired.”
Another marathon, my friends where the old, rusted hand-mower will always lose out to the bright and shiny self-propelled Honda HRX with a high wheel rear bag, an ergonomic handle, and a fast-firing 190cc engine. (For some of us, that may be the closest we ever come to a real erotic experience.)
Or you’re a young woman in high school hunkering down on the Math section of an SAT exam, the exam that will lift you up and out into your dream college or university. Is it Princeton or Yale? Or will you be doomed to a local community college and have to live home with your parents?
Uh, why did I forget little-league soccer? Well, my friends, let the facts speak for themselves: There are over 50 million Google entries for “Little-League Soccer.” Need I say more.
Competition it is folks. How could we have ever imagined that “beating” someone out, of being “neck and neck,” of being “first out of the gate” and “first over the finish line” would rule so much of our daily lives.
As unaware of the competition MO as we may be, we are engaged in it almost every waking hour.
And make no bones about it, we will probably be in it for a very long time.