Winning Is a Four-Letter Word

By Larry Sherber

The title of today's sermon is "Winning is a four-letter word." Don't you hate cute little titles that try to grab your attention. I do. But in this case it seemed appropriate to describe our growing national obsession with winning. From sports to politics, from business to the media to war, we have become consumed with winning. We love our winners. We idolize them, we identify with them, we read about them, we put their names on our t-shirts, we watch them in commercials, and dream of being like them. When I googled the words "winners" and "losers", guess which word was mentioned in more than 5 times the number of web sites as the other? Losers are stigmatized, dissed, and usually forgotten. Our obsession has caused us to lose our perspective. Whatever happened to that simple statement of acceptance and reality: "You win some and you lose some?" Unsatisfactory by today's standards. Why are we like this? Let's take a look at how winning has come to influence some of our society's principal institutions.

I will begin with sports. Did you ever notice that, for many of us, life and death issues seem to pale by comparison when our team, whether it be little league or the Olympics, is locked in combat. I, personally, plead guilty to overidentifying with my favorite sports teams and 'losing it' during the heat of competition. Fights involving players, spectators, and coaches have become commonplace. Sometimes even riots and violence break out after a big game is played – occurring in the hometown of the victors. Athletes learn at an early age that taunting and intimidation are as important to winning as skill and conditioning. Ok, now it's time to kick my whining into high gear. The thing that irks me the most is the post-game interview with the verbal, if not too cerebral, star of the game. You know, the one where he or she thanks God for the victory – implying that God favored their team over the other. I find myself asking "what did the losing team do to incur the wrath of God?" Did that last celebration dance in the end zone come too close to resembling some heathen pagan ritual, or does the team just have some moral issues they need to work on?

Of course we all know that sports also have a positive side. They can be entertaining and provide a healthy release for our pent-up emotions, tensions, and frustrations. They can help us to identify with something greater than ourselves, and most important of all – they give us an excuse to guiltlessly consume hot dogs, wings, pizza, and beer. But good, bad, or ugly, one fact cannot be denied – sports have produced more offensive and insulting quotes about 'winning' than any other institution in our society. Probably the one that best exemplifies our national fixation is the quote mistakenly attributed to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." How about Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz's statement after a scoreless tie with Duke in 1953: "A tie is like kissing your sister." If I was a woman with siblings, I'd be personally offended. George Brent, an all-star baseball player, took that saying to the next level when he said: "If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out." Listen George, I loved my grandmother with her teeth in or out! Another misquote that has become part of our national psyche came from an American sportswriter named Grantland Rice: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." Now that's more like it. But let's segue into our next institution, the one we all love to hate – politics – and see some of the reactions to Mr. Rice's moral and ethical declaration.

Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon's comment was "I have never had much sympathy for that point of view." By the way, he was not a crook! My favorite reaction came from Gene Autry: cowboy movie star, right-wing media entrepreneur, and coincidentally a supporter and close personal friend of Richard Nixon: "… Grantland Rice can go to hell as far as I'm concerned." In politics, winning justifies the means. Forget concepts such as statesmanship, compromise, doing what's best for the country. Political commercials have become monuments to misrepresentations, lies, and deceit. Let's take a look at our favorite example of what politicians are capable of doing in the name of winning – Watergate. In 1972 a secret Republican fund was formed to finance widespread intelligence gathering operations against the Democrats. In that same year Richard Nixon's dirty tricks squad broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel to plant bugs to be used by the Whitehouse for spying. These same men worked in campaign headquarters where a sign read "Winning at politics isn't everything, it's the only thing." There's a ringing endorsement on winning from some of the biggest losers in our country's history – and let us not delude ourselves into thinking that only one political party engages in these types of tactics – we know better.

Capitalism is, by nature, a ruthless system. To be a winner in business has historically been a 'no holds barred' affair. In this country it has always been acceptable to cheat as long as you didn't get caught. But a scary new watchword now defines success in business: "He who dies with the most toys wins." This conjures up images of the Donald Trumps of our business world, but, in all fairness, a 'she' needs to be added to that adage to also accommodate women like 'the queen of mean', Leona Helmsley. Martha Stewart's comeback adds a new twist to the game. It's now OK to get caught at lying and deceit and even to go to jail, as long as you don't have to give up any toys. In the movie "Wall Street," when Michael Douglas said "…for lack of a better word, greed is good" while addressing an audience of businessmen and women, everyone applauded. A classic case of art imitating life – how sad for all of us! Ah, but every cloud has a silver lining. Recently some of our wealthiest entrepreneurs, who incidentally have been accused of questionable business practices to obtain their successes, have seen the light. Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have shown extraordinary financial generosity in dealing with global health and social issues. Furthermore, Bill Gates and his wife devote much of their personal time and energies to these worthwhile causes. I applaud their efforts – to me they are the real winners in American business!

The seed for the topic of today's sermon was planted almost 4 years ago while listening to Ted Koppel, on Nightline, interview an anthropologist. She had just written a very interesting and important book about the underlying issues producing the clash between Middle Eastern Muslim extremist philosophy and the Western and capitalist ideas of the United States; the conflict of ideologies that led to 9/11 and eventually the war in Iraq. Mr. Koppel, in his infinite wisdom, never let the author finish a complete sentence without interrupting her with that now infamous question "So, what do you think it will take to win the war on terror?" That question has been asked more times in the last 4 years than the total number of hamburgers sold by McDonald's! I realized that night that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not interested in the underlying causes of the most important and complex issue we face as a nation today – we want a quick sound bite answer to tell us how to win, period! Now that I've started the media-bashing portion of today's discussion, let us continue with great gusto. Since we don't have several hours set aside for this topic, I'll address only the news as it is presented through the media of television. Sorry Rush, radio talk shows are a little too mean-spirited for a group that believes in "the inherent worth and dignity of every person!"

Winning the largest slice of the market share pie involves a ratings war that has 2 fronts: the competition between the major networks and each other, and between network television and cable television. The major news networks are struggling not to cut all ties with civil society while the cable news programs have openly engaged in what I call "news pornography." Proof that the networks occasionally show a micro-conscience occurred when Dan Rather was forced to retire early because he aired false reports about the president's military record without adequately checking his sources. The fact that he was 3 days short of his 97th birthday at the time probably had nothing to do with that decision by CBS executives. And if you listen closely, every now and then you might even hear a news anchor whisper a retraction about an 'inaccurate statement,' formerly known to us listeners as 'a bold-faced lie.' But my biggest gripe is with the network nightly news programs, because they have taken away my God-given and constitutional right to use my remote to avoid commercials by switching back and forth between stations. They have conspired to time their commercials, which now take up the better half of the entire news program, with the other networks so they all run simultaneously. How can a fair and loving God allow such a travesty?

In order to compete with each other, Cable news programs operate conscience-free, using the tabloid mentality as their news model, and, for the most part, refusing to apologize for any inaccuracies. Their reporting philosophy appears to be: "That's my story and I'm sticking to it." How I long for the good old days when all business people were conservative and all media personnel were liberal. Today, everybody claims title to Fox Network's catch phrase "fair and balanced reporting," when in reality all programs show some degree of bias and you need a scorecard to figure out which way each is slanted. Regardless of who the winners are in television news, we viewers are always the losers.

Nowhere in American culture is it more important to win than in war. Sometime in the last 60 years war has insidiously replaced baseball as our national pastime. In my lifetime we have had the cold war, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and of course the wars du jour in Afghanistan and Iraq; not to mention several other skirmishes that did not reach 'war' status. We also have another war, a silent war, going on in this country: the 500 lb. Gorilla in the room that every American is too embarrassed to talk about – that monumental clash between George W. Bush, … and words; a war I'm afraid he can never win. If a degree from Yale hasn't given him enough ammunition, I doubt that any number of tutors in the Whitehouse can turn this war around. In reality, it was lost the first time the president used the word 'nucular'.

While we're on the subject of 'words', I feel the need to venture off the main theme of today's presentation for just a moment. One of the benefits of standing on this podium in front of an open-minded UU congregation is the freedom to give an unsolicited, unpaid, political endorsement. I realize my limitations as a writer and a speaker, but I have been particularly humbled recently while listening, on CD's, to Barack Obama's reading of his book, The Audacity of Hope. While the president abuses the English language and I struggle to express myself, the Senator creates a symphony out of words with the same expertise that Beethoven created his symphonies out of musical notes. As he speaks, his ideas flow into harmonies that blend easily into your own thoughts. Agree with him or not, but few will deny his gift of communication skills. If you want to treat yourself to an eloquent oration, listen to those CD's – and, if you are so inclined, give him your vote.

Now back to war. Let's see how many of our nation's more recent conflicts we have actually won: the wars on poverty, drugs, and terror – no victories there by any standard. The Korean and Viet Nam wars – hell no! Afghanistan and Iraq – not a chance in hell! Maybe that's why they say "war is hell," because it's so darn hard to win one. Some Americans might claim that we won the Gulf War, so let's take a closer look. We did manage to get Sudaam Hussein (rest his soul) out of Kuwait, but then we didn't put the finishing touches on by marching into Baghdad. To better understand the situation, let's look at this from a Hollywood perspective. If George Bush Sr. produced and directed the Gulf War, then the present Iraqui War, produced and directed by George Jr., is actually just the sequel to his daddy's war and should be renamed something like "Gulf War II – the Son's Revenge." Therefore, the Gulf War is still going on and it is evident to all of us (except perhaps the President and the Vice President) that this war can never be won. So that leaves us with the Cold war that we engaged in for decades to rid the world of those red devils, the Soviet Union. Many political scientists and economists will argue that communism was never really a viable economic or political system in the postmodern world, and that it faltered, not because of pressure from the West, but from its own internal failed policies. Ronald Reagan may have hurried up the process with his arms buildup, but the same result would have been inevitable if we had just showed a little patience – look what's happening in China. So it appears that in the last 60 years tens of thousands of Americans have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been wounded, untold hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent – and for what?!

Some might think that we Americans don't learn from our mistakes. Not true. The way I see it we have no choice. Without a war to try to win we might encounter one or more of those horrible alternatives – love, peace, tranquility, prosperity. Can we really take that chance? Not on your life! This country was founded by winning a war, we are regularly engaged in futile attempts at winning wars, and war has always formed the basis of our foreign policy. We have war coursing through our veins and we'll be damned if we will give up something we have worked so hard and so long for – our #1 standing as the most warlike country on the planet! After all, isn't the final goal of winning to eventually become #1? Calm down Larry, remember your blood pressure. The only good thing to come out of this insatiable appetite for war is that the Pentagon has recently released a new policy stating that from now on, before our troops enter another country, we will consult with anthropologists about local and national cultures, and political situations. The next thing you know someone in a position of power in this country is going to read a history book before making an important decision – how ridiculous!

All sarcasm aside, there is only one way to deal with our problem, and I have come up with it. It occurred to me one day when I heard that when you previewed the Super Bowl commercials on the internet, you encountered other advertisers who bought space on that website. What a great idea: commercials for commercials. It's pure capitalism and it's brilliant! So what does that have to do with war? Well, I extrapolated from that inventive notion a new and original concept – I am going to declare war on war! What do you think? Unlike World War I, which was supposed to be "the war to end all wars," my "war on war" will be different. Now you might ask me: "Larry, what will it take to win the war on war?" Imagine: General Jane Fonda leading a fierce army of Buddhists, pacifists, doves, anti-war demonstrators, peace corps workers, and Unitarian Universalists – I love it! Armed with soft voices, love beads, marijuana, tranquilizers, and pictures of John and Yoko; drained of all testosterone and chanting "all we are saying is give peace a chance," we will prevail! But, if things don't turn out the way I've planned, I may require a surge force of 20,000 more pacifists. Then, if we stay the course…

We are all human – we have good days and bad days – we have successes and failures. Sometimes we're winners and sometimes losers. And don't misunderstand me; winning and fair competition are an important part of the human condition, helping us to make positive progress in many areas. But anyone who has gained wisdom through life's experiences knows that, although we may feel good when victorious, we learn more and grow more from our losses. Friends, losing is underrated. It is as important to us, and as necessary for our well-being as breathing the air. Losing gives us depth of character and motivation to improve, to do better. When we win and we succeed, we elevate our self-esteem, we feed our egos, we revel in our accomplishments – and that's all good – but it's all about ourselves. In our losses and failures we are more vulnerable, more human. Instead of just celebrating the moment, we search, we question; developing insights into others and sympathies for what they must feel when they experience loss. The real winners in our civilization are not those who value fame, power, acquisition, and ownership. They are individuals who journey inward to access their humanity, and to cultivate a pure heart.

I'd like to conclude today with a quote from a woman who spent her life as a public servant and as an activist in the women's movement. Harriet Woods was born in Cleveland, Ohio – my hometown – and all Americans can learn from her wisdom and her words: "You can stand tall without standing on someone. You can be a victor without having victims."