A Conversation to My Left

by Steven Hill

In the United States, we live in a winner-take-all society. What does that mean?

It means that, if I receive a promotion at work, someone else didn't get it. It means, if someone is admitted to Yale Law School instead of me, whether due to merit, need, privilege, rich uncles or affirmative action, then I'm out of luck. If the candidate I vote for only receives 49.9% of the vote, and the other candidate receives 50.1%, that means I as a voter lose and the opposition walks off with the political prize. What the majority decides, the minority loses. It's a zero sum game. Winner take all means there are winners and there are losers in this game. Fabulous wealth and the most abject poverty can co-exist side-by-side on this head of a pin we call Planet Earth. In San Francisco, where I live, any pedestrian on Market Street receives daily reminders that, in a winner take all society, too many lose big time. Losers are left behind in the foot race to the top of Mount Whatever, their begging hand extended, hoping a few crumbs will fall from the heights above.

The biggest losers usually are from a certain race, class, gender, political orientation, style, whatever. In a winner take all society, the losers are called "minority groups," because that makes it easier to brand them as a "special interest group," which according to today's pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality equals a whiner and a complainer. Women are actually the majority, but because they are on the short end of a "winner take all" society, they too get labeled as whiners and complainers -- a "minority/special interest" group. The wealthiest people in the world, on the other hand, are a very small minority, but they are not losers, so they aren't called a "minority group" or a "special interest." They're called champions, stars, successful, genius, Mr. President, CEO, Bill Gates, and other nice names.

Ironically, everybody is part of a minority, it's just a matter of context. In San Francisco and many liberally-oriented cities, one of the minorities is Republicans. These Republicans have virtually no political representation at the municipal level. In South Africa, white people are the minority (and fortunately they do have political representation because South Africa wisely chose to use a proportional representation voting system rather than a "winner take all" system). In a winner take all situation, the losing minority is subsumed by the deluge of the winning majority, which is really a collection of winning minorities. It's a very tribal affair. If certain minorities lose time after time, decision after decision -- as is inevitable, since, after all, somebody's got to lose, this is winner take all, somebody's got to have less votes, less punch, than the majority -- that minority soon learns a bleak lesson. It learns, "you don't count." It learns "you have no voice" and "your participation is a waste of time." That minority group and its members will probably start asking, "Why should I care about this society, when I am always on the outs and the society obviously doesn't care about me?"

Losers learn they are marginal in a winner take all society.

No one likes to lose all the time, or even most of the time. Losing is uncomfortable, unprofitable, unhealthy, maybe even dangerous. No, winning is much better. We learn that from the earliest of ages, we have that drummed into our heads. Be a winner! Be a success! Be a champion! We have it sprinkled on our breakfast cereal, "Eat Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions!" We want to win real bad, and so we learn how to do that as best we can. We buy a map that tells us how to get there, and then a ticket too, and a ride, and hopefully a short-cut, maybe even some kind of insurance, so that we can get a guaranteed pay-off in case we don't make it there, or in case we get hurt or lost along the way. You have to be wary of those who try and profit off of what we need to get there; and suspicious of voodoo economists, and vendors of scented bottles of Instant Happiness.

In order to win, you go through various acts of self-censorship. You cut your hair, shave your face or legs, lose weight, trim this or add that. We develop fairly sophisticated processes of internal scrutiny, in which we a priori ask ourselves, Will what I say be accepted? Will it sound "reasonable" to a reasonable person, or to my co-workers, or to my supervisor? Will it be accepted by the "majority ears?" Will it lead to -- success? Ah, the mantra of winner take all - "SUCCESS." This has the effect of self-censoring, well, just about everything, including daily conversation, what TV programs and movies we imbibe, who we are attracted to as friends, partners and lovers, the arts, journalism, political ideology, and other forms of expression. To win, to succeed, you need broad support in a winner take all society. In fact, you need a majority of support, and you either win or you lose, there's no in-between. A majority is a lot of people, and so you need to not take risks, you need to mainstream yourself so you will be picked up by the mainstream and swept to victory. You need to push to the center, push it across the goal line, you need to moderate what you say when the camera is on you, when you have the platform, when you are at work, so that you will get the promotion, the raise, the bonus, the mate. So that you will get ahead. So that you will - succeed.


Takes all.

But the "push to the center" has some down sides. For one, you lose things along the way. You lose the margins, the cutting edges of your personality, of your brilliance and crazy crazy genius, that is uniquely yours. From the perspective of genetic pooling, that's bad news, because a society needs a diverse gene stock to survive times of crises. A society needs new ideas constantly percolating to the surface, to see what catches root during each new turn in the meandering path of evolution. Sustainable life requires a dialectic, so that from the old can spring forth the new. The "fringe" genes, in effect, are where the new ideas come from. The margins are the laboratory for the center.

Truth be told, a consequence of our winner take all "pursuit of happiness" is an extremely narrow and disciplined day, more like a race than a meditation, with pious adherents climbing the stairs mechanically to reach the Promised Land like somnambular zombies in an M.C. Escher print.

When it comes to new ideas, the winner-takes-all "Flavors of the Month" are always vanilla and chocolate. Not that there's anything wrong with vanilla and chocolate, mind you, it's just that there's no opportunity to try other flavors, to see if there isn't something special just over the horizon. After awhile, people know what vanilla and chocolate taste like, so they quite coming back to see if there's any other flavors. They know there won't be. People withdraw, become frustrated, alienated. People want their ice cream! They want their cake, and they want to eat it too!

"We Want More Flavors! We Want More Flavors!"

Opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds of Americans want a multi-party democracy, instead of the Two Brands of Bland Toothpaste variety we currently endure. U.S. voters want what most established democracies already have -- more electable choices, viable third parties, and fourth and fifth parties, and independent candidates. Is that too much to ask?

I can do this "push to the center." Having lived for 38 years in a winner take all society, that kind of self-censorship comes pretty easily to me by now. I have found a certain amount of success, by the standards of this winner take all society -- Yale graduate, published writer, decent-paying employment, stable personal relationship.

But what have I lost in the process? I've put my nose to the grind stone, head down, buried in my own little life, looking for light at the end of the tunnel up ahead. Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, and all that rot. But what have I lost, in the rush to the center, to the mainstream, to the majority? Just because mostly everybody's there or trying to get there, does that make it automatically right?

"Sometimes a majority means that most of the fools are on the same side."

I want to turn away from the center for a moment, realizing that this is a foolish and risky proposition, because it means I am risking my chances for success. This anthology is a conversation-in-progress, not to my center -- I can get that easily enough by turning on the television, or by talking to my co-workers, especially to my boss -- but to my left. This is a conversation with that part of me that is concerned about something more than my own self-interest. The part that is stretching toward something more sublime within myself, concerned about how I've grown to be a 21st Century man, and what I've lost along the way, what I've closed myself off to, what I've discarded so that I can fit in and achieve. This is a conversation to that part of me that wonders about things, and is unsure of himself, and wonders if I've "made" it yet, or if I'll ever make it, is it possible to make it?

This is also a conversation with those who have not achieved success, the so-called "losers" who are mired in the depths of various personal, political, economic or social setbacks and disappointments. (Why is it that the team on the downside of the final score in the Super Bowl, or the World Series, is called "the loser?" Didn't they finish second? Everybody can't win, can they?) This is a conversation to that part of me that is open and concerned, that cringes when I have to rush past that grungy, sun-burned bum with her hand out because I'm late to work, to that part of me that is concerned about "liberty and justice for all."

I believe that part exists in everyone of us, even in Republicans. It exists in all of us who truly are concerned about homelessness, poverty, the environment, and other daunting social ills, even if we can't all agree on the solutions. Two of my brothers are Republicans, and I know they care. But hey, we can't even agree on what movie to go see, or what to talk about over holiday repast and conversation. So I'm not surprised we can't always agree on the path to justice. It's that winner take all thing again.

Still, we try, what else can we do, right? Adam raised a Cain, and Cain slew Abel, and a little civility and walking a mile in the other's Nike's can go a long way.

This conversation is not a conversation to my right, that will have to wait for another day. That conversation would be about reduction, about following orders, about marching to a single drummer sometimes because it's necessary, about balancing check books and bringing in the hay before the rains come. That conversation is about taking a book literally and fundamentally as an absolute guide, because we can't figure any other way out of here; sometimes it's a relief to have a very clear set of instructions that we follow line by line. I do it when I cook all the time, I follow the recipe literally and fundamentally (I'm an exceptionally awful cook). That rightward conversation is about selfishness, ah, sometimes it feels damn good to be selfish, wielding a fierce tribalism that rewards loyalty and blind support, that upholds family, revenge, honor, and other visceral things like that -- 'til death do we part. Necessary things. But sometimes evil things. Sometimes it's fun to be selfish, to be absolutely and malignantly stingy, sometimes it's fun to jump up and down on the roof of a supervisor's car, and smash his headlights, when he's really pissed you off. I'll bet it would be fun to take out a gun on the highway and shoot out the radiator of that asshole who just cut me off. Unfortunately, people get hurt. And there's way too much of that in the world already. That's the winner take all way, somebody wins, and somebody loses -- it's a zero-sum game. So that conversation to my right will have to wait for another day.

"The left is the side of the heart, as the right is the side of the liver," wrote George Santayana. I think he was on to something there.

No, this is a conversation to my left, to my heart. And we don't have a recipe we can follow literally. Left conversations are about the complexity and interconnectedness of things, rather than the simplicity or reduction of them. I fear that, in 1997, as we hurtle like a screaming meteor toward the 21st century (as we have learned to count these things like centuries - what a concept), we have lost our conversation to our left. What I've noticed is, that in our rush to the center, to the mainstream, in order to simplify and succeed in a winner take all society, we are losing our left and the center is shifting rightward. Justice is passČ, so is kindness, altruism, gentleness, love, compassion, community, caring. LOVE is passČ, unless it's to our family and friends, there's that tribalism thing again. There is very little to a left politic in this country, not only in national and local politics, but in our newspapers, in our art, in our television programs and entertainment, indeed in our daily conversations. This isn't healthy. It's not balanced. An airplane needs both a left and a right wing to fly.

Some say that the left is dead, and that may be kind of true for a left politic. But the left sentiment can never die, so long as there are losers in this world. And there will be many losers, for the foreseeable future -- the winners see to that.

So this collection addresses that gaping left hole in our psyche, that part of us that is concerned with the plight of those who have less, even if we don't know what to do with that concern. These essays are for those precious moments -- those certain times of the day or week, perhaps only for a moment or two strung together like beads on a necklace, as we go about our daily routines of employment, shopping, recreation, even if for just that fleeting moment, when we humanely cringe before that outstretched beggar's hand as we rush off to work. These themes are dedicated to those who are concerned about their little corner of the universe called the United States and Planet Earth as we hurtle toward the 21st century after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; for those who sometimes take literally, fundamentally, the words of Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount,

"Blessed are the Poor"

"Blessed are the Meek"

"Blessed are the humble"

"Blessed are the pure in heart"

"Blessed are they who mourn..."

"Blessed are the Peacemakers"

"Blessed are the dissatisfied"

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice"

You see, fundamentalist Christians and liberation theologians can come along together on this ride. Reverends Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, claiming to draw inspiration from the same Black Book and the same Son of God, can sit together on this ride. "All aboooooaard!" You'll want to bring some food along, and a change of clothes, and a toothbrush along with you. Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days, chasing shadows, resisting temptation and befriending the desert creatures, but don't worry, we won't be gone for nearly that long.

We're off to have a conversation with our left.

Steven Hill July, 1997