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On Winning and Responsibility

Fall 2010 Epigram

On Winning and Responsibility

Toward a theory of temporary advantage in the chaos of life. The idea of winning smacks of the absolute and archaic…

The idea of winning smacks of the absolute and archaic. The pulse of history, liberal guilt and the end-of-history, millenarian dream of global homogeneity are against it. We all go to the worms. Civilizations rise and fall. What remains of countless ‘wins’ are a few stone remnants and a museum display of corroded armour.

Language, as always, is dire with prognostication. One can win the battle but not the war. And even if one wins, it might be a Pyrrhic victory. In the modern parlance, quagmire is a metaphor turned into a technical term for a victory that won’t stick. Paradoxically, it seems, both sides have to agree on who won – otherwise ones does not get victory; one gets a festering sore or a quagmire. We see an early model in the Book of Judges: after wandering in the Wilderness, fording the River Jordan, and conquering city after city, the Israelites find total victory slipping from their grasp (quagmire) due to an inability to compass Jehovah’s original programme of ethnic cleansing.

Winning is elitist and anti-democratic. Only a few can win; the masses are losers. Think of the difference between performing an action in order to do it well (from aesthetic or utilitarian motives) and performing the same act in order to win (to defeat an opponent). Competition drives excellence, we think, in imitation of the ancient Greeks; although nowadays it also drives the invention of credit default swaps, offshore manufacturing, and the bankrupting of middle-class homeowners. Winning outcomes are always asymmetrical, or they are shadowed by their opposites – failure, resentment and loss. The legendary priest-kings of the Grove of Nemi won their crowns by slaughtering previous kings in combat, only to be slaughtered in turn by new champions.

As often as not, winning is a matter of who tells the story, and where the story ends. George W. Bush had his ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment, only to watch the story of Iraq unfold new chapters of anarchy. If history teaches a lesson, it is that winning is temporary, relative, and open to question. Human beings are a wayward and squabbling lot; as far as winning is concerned, someone is always moving the goalposts or changing the rules. And sometimes one wishes that politicians and their enablers, the media, would scale back the dramatic hyperbole. We should perhaps forget winning and think: temporary advantage in the chaos of life.

In the culture of sports (not to mention politics and the arts, treated as a sport as they often are in the media) where the ancient dramas of agon – struggle, defeat and victory – are played out in a glamourous and gossipy arena, winning has become a fantasy of inhuman ability (thank goodness for steroids), fabulous wealth and hysterical spectator identification, a fact not lost on marketing shills – hence the taint of commercial tawdriness attached to winners these days. Above all, winning is entertainment. Disguised as an index of achievement, the cult of winning packages experience as a dramatic action: desire, conflict, suspense, climax and catharsis.

People who forget other people speak easily of winning and turn life into a game. And perhaps there is nothing more human than wanting to transform the most awful circumstances – say, war, or the ruthless competition for scarce resources – into a tennis match, all gallantry, rules and referees. But this is pure escapism, denial and tragedy. As the planet grows smaller (and the cosmos beyond grows more mysteriously expansive), it becomes indispensable to compose a larger theory of winning that includes the entire human race and Nature herself within a broad and unconventional accommodation to Fate and Law.

At its very best, the ideal of globalization is about winning on a planetary scale – not about the politics of conflict and advantage at the level of tribes, villages, regions or states – but about negotiation, planning and compromise at the level of the species. The radically conservative ideology of eco-politics posits not a programme of competition, conquest and consumption, but of renewal and sustainability. The great, nearly half-century of war from 1914 to 1945 ended not with the punitive hubris of the Treaty of Versailles, but with the Marshall Plan that turned Germany into a winner of a different sort, and irrevocably altered Europe’s moral trajectory.

There is a definition of the word ‘winning’ that has little to do with conquest or chicanery, with struggle, defeated opponents and humiliation. We speak of a winning smile or disposition, winning as charming and agreeable, winning that is persuasive, seductive, and ultimately results in possession. Winning in this regard is not a matter of violence and triumph, but of attraction by force of personality, nobility, generosity and beauty – winning as an expression of play and rhetoric, under the sign of the winged god Eros.


Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.


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