Underdogs, Not Victims

Nations are founded on and sustained by symbols, narratives, and values.  This is why Americans proudly stand for our National Anthem, revere our Constitution and the Founding Fathers, and honor the Judeo-Christian values of Western Civilization.  The underdog is the archetypal hero of our national psyche, a symbol of individual effort overcoming the odds.  But the more radical elements of our Republic are maneuvering to replace underdogs with victims.

In the bone-chilling winters of Minnesota, the state high school hockey tournament is a solemn event, with a distinguished list of alumni playing in the NHL and the Olympics.  Each year, the good people of Minnesota sincerely want the best team to win, but they also hope for exciting upsets.  The underdogs are often from the less affluent Iron Range (Minnesota’s northern mining towns) and the dominant teams are often from the more affluent Twin Cities suburbs.  Despite the odds, the Iron Range teams often punch above their weight.

The satisfaction of watching a dominant team lose is admittedly grounded in Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of others) but the real satisfaction comes from watching the underdog win.  The team USA victory over the Soviet Union in hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics -- we believe in miracles -- is one of the greatest upsets in sports history.  The underdog narrative, from the Biblical story of David and Goliath to the American Dream, has motivated generations of Americans to strive to be their best, which has fueled the American miracle.

David and Goliath, by Guillaime Courtois

Most Americans are honest and realistic about life.  Hierarchy and inequality are inevitable, in part due to effort but also in part due to variables that seem less fair.  The result is that students from wealthy school districts are often better positioned to succeed in athletics, academia, and life.  The smart money is usually on the dominant teams and the underdogs usually lose, but life offers enough underdog victories to keep the dream alive.

Most Americans also have a soft spot for real victims, but the elevation of victims writ large distorts the American Dream narrative and exploits our compassion.  First, victims are not underdogs because there is no expectation that they will rise to the occasion and win.  The mere status of victim suffices to merit the benefits of victory.  Second, many self-proclaimed victims are not themselves victims.  Merely belonging to a group that has been victimized in the past now suffices for the benefits of victimhood membership.

The victim narrative fails because there is nothing inconsistent about cheering for underdogs and accepting the results if they lose.  The underdog works hard to fight another day.  There is also nothing inconsistent about recognizing that some groups have been victims in the past without granting victim status to every member of the group today.  The ranks of elite schools and affluent neighborhoods are filled with individuals with no legitimate claim to victim status, regardless of what might have happened to their ancestors.

The victim narrative also permeates our political discourse, with the goal of rewriting the rules of power.  The first revisionist rule is that victims no longer have to construct valid arguments or invoke the truth.  The mere fact that they belong to a victimized group or express outrage suffices to justify their policy proposals.  On the flip side, the second revisionist rule is that any attempt to scrutinize the argument of a victim is met with scorn and labeled as hatred or bigotry.  Nancy Pelosi discovered this the hard way with her own party.

We can thank the more radical elements for challenging us to take an honest look at our history and the obstacles to equal opportunity.  We can celebrate underdogs without neglecting the needy, and we should celebrate the fact that the Forbes 400 list today looks very different than the lists of previous generations.  Inequality exists, for sure, but it is mostly a function of ability, family wealth, and social networks, not government.  The long-term strategy for helping the needy should include measurable investments in vulnerable populations and individuals paying it forward to the next generation.

The American Dream narrative is about removing obstacles for the individual pursuit of excellence. This in turn creates wealth and innovation to fund schools and other programs to promote equal opportunity.  Many people will fall short, for all the right and wrong reasons, but the journey makes life worth living and sharpens our edge.  People are free to distribute their wealth as they see fit, but discerning Americans are beginning to see the more radical agenda not as a sincere quest for social justice but as a threat to the American Dream.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird – School of Global Management.

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