Alvin Josephy passed almost a decade ago, but I visit his writing and thinking almost daily. I think about the questions I didn’t ask, the conversations that could have been longer, and tying it all to today. Mostly, I think “Alvin, you are right on.”
Over some time in the 1990s and early 2000s, Alvin was interviewed by friend and Southwest writer, activist, and radio producer Jack Loeffler, and in one of those interviews Alvin reminded Jack and radio listeners that there are many “traditional” American values—think neighborliness, tolerance, and equal opportunity. Few would argue with any of these, but Alvin said that we have largely forgotten them in the frenzied pursuit of and insistence on one value, “competition.”
From the NFL to “American Idol,” high school GPAs and SAT scores to job promotions and juried art shows, we are surrounded by and deeply immersed in competition. Held in check by fair play and good neighborliness, “friendly” competition is benign, maybe even good. But stripped of the others, running amok, it is poison.
It is Kenneth Lay accumulating wealth and political power, manipulating gas markets, bilking investors, selling his Enron shares high while encouraging employees to keep buying them as their value dropped, and, in his fall, taking down other companies and ruining retirements for thousands of Enron employees. Convicted of fraud, Lay died at 64 of a supposed heart attack while awaiting sentencing at a Colorado ski resort.
When competition is the final measure, friendship, ethics, and citizenship are all out the window, and fame and money reign—how else to measure a movie actor against a CEO, a homerun hitter, or a social program originator. How easy to understand Lay, Lance Armstrong and Mark Maguire and a host of other cheaters. And how strenuously the cheaters fight off guilt—in the end, it seems Kenneth Lay felt little guilt for the people he’d cheated; he might have felt bad about getting caught.
But, heading into the New Year, I don’t feel so clean myself. Knowing all we know about professional and big college football, I find myself following the Oregon Ducks and the Seattle Seahawks. We know that players get hurt—sometimes seriously hurt, and sometimes, we are learning, the hurt plays out years later, in ALS, Parkinson’s, dementia, and destructive rage. Junior Seau grew up where I did, in Oceanside, California, and mutual friends say his suicide was not part of his original personality. Friend Terry Crenshaw died with ALS in his fifties—did his years of football contribute?
But we watch…. and we get emotionally tied up with teams and players. We join with other fans in cheers and dress and reactions to the game. We share in the fame—entire cities and states and regions share in the fame. We want our guy—Russell Wilson in Seattle—to best the bigger guys with bigger salaries from Eastern and Midwestern powerhouses. We win the Heisman Trophy for best college football player withMarcus Mariota, and will be cheering witheach other in front of a big screen TV on New Years Day for Marcus and his Ducks to destroy Florida State.
Pure Gladiator. There is something primal in these emotions that push competition to the limits and allow fans and bystanders to glory in others’ achievements. But, like many values and virtues, the importance accorded this one waxes and wanes—teamwork, order, spirituality, equality, come along and show their stuff. The Coliseum is replaced by the cathedral or parliament, the printing press, agricultural improvement, art and science. Society, culture, and the public gain on the individual.
Again, Alvin Josephy put it succinctly. Indians, he said, are the only Americans still capable of “group think,” of thinking for the tribe. He told me that in relation to the drug and alcohol problem, which he thought would be solved first on reservations.
There are certainly millions of Americans who want to see the drug problem solved, who want better wages and more equitable treatment for low income neighbors, want health care for all and a world full of wonder and natural resources for their grandchildren. But these things can’t really happen until competition is harnessed, put back in a place where it is reasonable rather than defining, and lives comfortably alongside other values.
I don’t know where this starts. Competitive forces are pushing for national college playoff games and we look for “winners” in complex diplomatic and combat situations across the globe. I would like to think that my own better nature—and that of millions of others—will eventually turn away from the gladiators and join the Indians. How to get there? Follow the Indians?
Maybe this year, in 2015.