Stay with me now, young readers, as I introduce you to the Really Rottens. The Rottens flourished in the late 1970s, living by a traditional moral code: All’s fair in love and war—just without the love. They had easy-to-grasp competitive methodologies, such as projecting spikes from the rims of their racing cars to shred the tires of the neighboring car driven by one of the Yogi Yahooeys or the Scooby Doobies. The Rottens were ingenious in their efforts to make the other guys lose. And yet they almost never won.
We, the kids of America, spent those long-ago Saturday mornings communing with the animators of Hanna-Barbera and soaking up life lessons from the morally diverse squads on NBC’s Laff-A-Lympics. The Rottens were led by a dog named Mumbly, a gray mutt with a hoarse laugh, and you could pretty much tell how a friend would grow up by the way he or she felt about Mumbly. If your friend disliked Mumbly, chances are he’s now a fifth-grade teacher in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, lamenting the loss of his collective bargaining rights. If your friend liked Mumbly, chances are he’s now Wisconsin governor and presidential hopeful Scott Walker.
We can all agree, like our great generational predecessors Simon & Garfunkel, that we’d rather be hammers than nails. But back then it wasn’t clear that the Rottens would wind up being the hammers. Somehow playing to win felt like a more promising life path than playing to make the other guy lose. Flopping, cyberattacks, digital espionage and the Cameron Crazies were all safely in the future. If our cartoon-addled little minds had been more sophisticated, we’d have known that the 1972 Nixon campaign had excelled in “opposition research.” But even so, look where that got all the president’s men! Somehow it seemed that the Rottens of this world always had a price to pay. We’d seen those pictures of Mussolini.
Maybe the whole world changed on October 14, 1978, when, according to our good friends at Wikipedia, the Really Rottens won their first Laff-A-Lympics. After that, it was only a short path to hostile takeovers, asset stripping, Swift Boating and Deflategate.
In any case, what I saw earlier this month was this: A child, maybe 13 years old, walked to the free-throw line of a middle school basketball game, and the parents of the opposing team screamed their passionate parental heads off in an attempt to distract the kid. The eyes were wild, the hands were raised, slapping spastically at the air; strange guttural sounds rose to the rafters like prayers in some dead shamanic tongue. I half expected someone to shout out: “Stone him!”
The kid hit both free throws, and chances are he experienced it as a thrill: the Carolina power forward answering the Duke faithful with nothing but net. But it got me thinking that our society, which talks a whole lot about hope, had arrived at something more practical: Failhope. Success is simply too damn hard when everyone else is also trying to succeed. The bread of victory rises faster when leavened with the opposition’s failure. As Lenin said, “The worse, the better.”
Failhope has a dark corollary. When we Americans pray for the other guy’s failure—whether the other guy is Barack Obama or the kid at the free-throw line—we’re making a small spiritual step toward favoring actions that would cause such a failure. When the spirit wants something badly enough, the rational mind looks for ways to make it happen. All’s fair in love and war—just without the love.
Try this thought experiment: You are a devoted fan of your local team. The opposing squad’s star player takes a nasty fall. You cheer politely when he’s helped off the court. He won’t be back today; maybe not even this season. If he’s out of the way, it dawns on you, your team can win it all. For a moment, you catch yourself rejoicing.
In the words of your shrink: “How does that make you feel?”
Your answer should be: “Really rotten.”
Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Education.