Winners and the Alternative

Installment 9 – Winners and the Alternative

A lot of you have responded to this blog series with some form of “I agree with you, but it’s impossible.” This comment is usually combined with “The winners have too much power” or “Winning is human nature” or both.

   In this context, I’m forced to reveal that I learned to ski in one night. I was fifteen. A friend invited me to join his family on a big mountain in Switzerland for two weeks of skiing over Christmas vacation. I was thrilled, of course, but when I got to the mountain, I discovered I had never skied, didn’t know how, and this was a problem.


The first day, my friend stayed with me on the kiddie slope teaching me the snow plow and how to get to the bottom of the hill without serious damage. All around me, five-year-old kids were jumping and spinning effortlessly on skis that seemed to be natural extensions of their feet. Worse yet, I knew my friend wanted nothing more than to take the big lift to the top of the mountain where he could do the real skiing he and his family had come to this mountain to do. He was being nice, but we both knew my incompetence was a serious threat to this ski vacation. (He had invited me assuming I knew, since everyone in Switzerland knows how to ski. I went because I was invited, with no idea how important a certain level of ski skill is to a ski vacation.)

   That night, I dreamed I could ski. I saw myself skiing down the hill with my skis together, jumping from side to side like skiers do. More importantly, I felt myself doing that—my feet, legs, arms and poles, the forward tilt of my body, the wind in my face, turning sideways, skis cutting into the snow, sliding to a stop, the whole experience. I’m not sure how long I skied that night, but I woke up the next morning feeling I could ski. My friend and I walked out of the chalet, clipped on our skis, and parallel skied together down to the kiddie slope. My friend was amazed. I had died and gone to heaven.

   As soon as we got to the kiddie slope, we found a ski patrol guy who gave me a test. I passed the test well enough to get my silver badge, which was what I needed to take the big lift to the top of the mountain. By the end of that day, I was coming down gold slopes with my friend and the gang of teenage boys he immediately found. I wasn’t doing anything fancy, but I was keeping up and was the talk of the gang for the speed with which I had learned to ski. I just kept grinning, probably the happiest guy on that mountain.

   I hesitated to tell you this story. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m trying to impress you with my athletic prowess. I’m not. In fact, I’m not much of an athlete and, though I love skiing, I’ve skied remarkably little since that vacation. I believe the dream that taught me to ski may have been a gift from the God of Desperate Teenagers on Snow-covered Mountains, but it was definitely inspired by my extremely intense desire to ski (these words are entirely inadequate to that feeling).

   My nephew tells me that Bobby Knight, one of the greatest of all college basketball coaches, always said that success is 80% mental and 20% physical. If you want to be good at something (like basketball, for example) you do need some physical talent, and you have to know the plays, but mostly, you have to really, really want it, and you have to believe you can do it.

   This is precisely why I’m blogging about winning versus being decent. I was born a winner but, after 30 years of intensive training in Hiroshima, I am learning to approximate a decent human being. Having served in positions that forced me to think about peace, nonviolence, and what a peaceful world would look like, I have actually developed an ability to feel what it would be like to live in such a world. (It’s a lot better than what we’re doing.)

   Thus far, my winner-versus-decent-human-being series has focused on how and why winners fail to solve our chronic collective problems. To clarify and reinforce this issue, let me offer a particularly egregious example of winnership that came up November 21 on CNN.

Michael Smerconish hosted former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, asking him what should be done about ISIS. Scheuer said we should go “all in.” Asked what he meant by “all in”, he said: "All in to me would be to take out every piece of infrastructure: hospitals, universities, irrigation systems, that make it impossible for the Islamic State to raise money, to provide electricity, sanitation, potable water. Do exactly what we did to the Germans."

   When asked, “Do you think that the Western world, Americans in particular, would stand by for the film footage that would be shown, on CNN and elsewhere, of the so-called innocent civilian death count?”

   Scheuer replied, “I don't know if they would. They should. What's the difference? They're not Americans.”

   Clearly, Scheuer is a winner. He is focused completely on how we, the US, can defeat them, the enemy ISIS. To that end, he utterly disregards the 200,000 innocent men, women and children who happen to be living in Raqqa, a city ISIS has forcibly taken. In fact, he evinces no concern for anyone who is not American, that is, not on his team. In being so open, he is staking out a forward winner position. Even CNN appeared to find his blithe willingness to kill civilians objectionable, but he was merely articulating the winner approach. You do what you need to do to win. All other considerations are luxuries. You avoid killing civilians if you can, but if you can’t, you go ahead and kill’em all. The overriding imperative is to win—by any means necessary.

   Winners like Scheuer rule our world. In fact, most human beings still think like this, with perhaps more moderation. It’s all about what team you’re on; it’s all about winning and losing. It’s cutthroat competition wherever you look. What’s a decent human being to do?

   Beginning with installment 10, I will switch from criticizing the winner approach to painting pictures of decent alternatives. My goal will be to develop a more compelling, convincing, and usable vision of a decent human world. Most importantly, I hope to envision and actually feel what it would be like to live in such a world.

   The overwhelming power of winners and violence is not the real problem. Even violent winners have only the power the rest of us give them, and a decent human world is so vastly superior, it will easily convert most winners if it becomes a visible, viable reality to the critical mass. The crippling obstacle is our lack of collective vision. We haven’t yet dreamed a decent human world. We don’t want it badly enough. We don’t feel it, and we don’t believe it’s possible. Since success is 80% mental, we should work on that. 

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