My New Band Is: Loser, Baby
On Sportsmanship, Fairness, Justice, and Park Slope
Several months ago, my five year old son handed me a mixed-up Rubik’s Cube and said, “I know you grown ups enjoy losing, so here’s a game for you.” It was then that I realized that our discussion about the importance of sportsmanship had gone badly awry.
We had been talking about how to lose gracefully—and win gracefully—because we were both learning to play chess, me a little faster than him, but not by much. I did not grow up playing chess, and I’ve learned it temporarily on a few occasions to play once or twice over the years but when we decided to play together, I had to re-learn all of it—how the pieces move, how to set up the board, everything. Where I grew up, we played concussion-inducing sports and ran around in the woods collecting insect bites and vermin. I was repeatedly told to put down the book and go outside. Or put down the vermin and come inside. We had Super Mario Bros II, but not chess.
At any rate, the five year old and I were learning chess at the same time because I don’t have any experience of it, and well, he’s five. My son and I have a lot of similar personality traits, and one is that we both have a tendency toward perfectionism that makes us both very broody and irritable when we fail at things. My son is at the stage where he quietly tears up and stoically retreats to his room to sniffle a bit, which to be honest, I also do sometimes.
So my husband and I have been trying very hard to get our son to learn how to fail without getting too upset and analyze what happened so he can learn from it. We also try to teach him how to be gracious when he wins. In the context we both grew up in (which was conservative and what politicians irritatingly call “Middle American”, which is just code for “not the city”), this is called sportsmanship. It is also called sportsmanship here in the middle of liberal Brooklyn, but you wouldn’t know it from the political rhetoric around what it means to lose, and who the losers are.
Take, for example, our most famous Large Adult Son. “My dad showed Republicans don’t have to lose gracefully” said Donald Trump Jr., after his dad lost heavily and definitively. Junior is almost exactly a year younger than me, and maybe the definition of someone who never had to lose gracefully because the game is always rigged in his favor. But his orientation here isn’t unusual. People less, shall we say, red-eyed and indignant than Junior, keep casting cultural conservatism as a kind of hardness that eschews empathy and concern for others and values winning at all cost, and for its own sake, and defined by the most shallow metrics possible.
This is particularly disturbing and counterproductive societally in the middle of a pandemic where the way out of it is, by definition, collective. What does it mean to suggest that an admission of loss is a weakness? That winning just means getting exactly what you want, even at the expense of others? That it means not ever having to accommodate or think about other people?
I was thinking about these things when I Twitter faceplanted into a Bari Weiss Tweet touting a column that wasn’t actually a Weiss column but could have been, holding forth on the problem of American parents coddling their children and holding up ultra liberal Park Slope as an emblem of this supposed problem, the ground zero of producing, I dunno, Oberlin grads who know “intersectionality” is not a geometry term. The prose is so purple it’s like reading a giant bruise, but the idea behind it is simple.
What followed was kind of a mishmash of stereotypes and an insistence that people who think bigotry is a problem are faking it, and the real inequality is between people who want to say whatever they want, and people who think that certain kinds of speech can enable and exacerbate inequalities.
I can’t speak for Park Slopers because I don’t live in Park Slope. But I live in pretty hipster-y Brooklyn, in a neighborhood populated by as many strollers as cars. The creative class white people who live here like to wear unflattering but expensive pants and dress their children in vintage Nirvana t-shirts and kid-sized Carhartt jackets. Some kids have nut allergies and take Epi-pens to school, largely because their middle class parents had them tested for allergies as soon as they were able. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the author means about an inability to form complete sentences, since I’ve had a Park Slope six-year-old explain mitosis to me and it was far more coherent than the paragraphs above.
Brooklyn does not consist entirely or mostly of white wealthy hipsters. If it were a separate city it’d be the fourth largest in the country, and one of the most diverse.
But the idea of a community of people who are just too over-the-top concerned about liberal causes is a kind of lodestar for anti-anti-racists, and it’s embodied in a fictional liberal enclave they like to conjure that consists entirely of people teaching their children absurd things and coddling them. In between facilitating oat milk shortages and forcing our kids to read My First Zizek, we evidently interrupt our throupling to manufacture fake allergies and kill off irony for the umpteenth time, and our children go through life full of self-loathing because it was once suggested that they think about people who are not themselves.
The reality is that people are just teaching their kids that they have responsibilities to the rest of society that are shaped in part by their privilege. Sometimes they use nouveau academic-ish jargon (like “privilege” in this context) to talk about these things.
This should be neither controversial nor offensive. Framing it as a crusade against “wrong-think” is projection, and particularly for right wing columnists who never stop complaining about the utilization of the 1619 Project in schools.
I grew up in the kind of place that Weiss and Savodnik like to venerate and end up caricaturing because they don’t understand it. It was rural, in a red state, and nobody’s parents were sending them to chess lessons. We lived slightly outside of city limits on a road called Buckridge because there was a pretty good chance you’d hit a deer at least once over the course of a year just driving through it. My dad built the house we lived in for much of my childhood. He poured the concrete, installed the drywall, did the wiring, laid the carpet. Whatever he didn’t do, family friends did and they bartered services with each other.
As a result, my brothers and I got carted to construction sites where we learned to hammer nails and sand things and had a few advanced power tool lessons that were definitely iffy for elementary school kids. When we were not doing that, we were free to roam in what we just collectively called “the woods” behind our house, an expansive plot of land owned by Union Camp, a big lumber company. My dad put some boundaries around our outdoor adventures when some hunters began illegally shooting deer there and would sometimes aim too close to our house, but for the most part we had no restrictions. We got scraped and bruised and dirty and it was fine. We also had allergies—or my brothers did (I was adopted and they weren’t; we have different genetics), and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because they lacked exposure to any natural substance known to man. If it was a natural allergen, my brothers probably wore it or ate it at some point.
We were not coddled but it did not make us think that justice or empathy for other people was stupid or performative. And my parents were not and are not liberal people, but they also grew up during the Civil Rights era—in Alabama—and were certainly aware that Black people are treated differently than white people. They were even more aware that rich people were treated very differently than poor people—and more so because at one point, we would have been, not poor people, per se (it never felt like it, anyway) but financially struggling people who were slowly digging our way out of debt. My dad didn’t have a second job on top of his unionized job as a local lineman because it was fun, and my mom didn’t go to work as a janitor at my school because she wanted to pursue a career in educational facility hygiene. Those things were just necessities. And these truths about inequality and race were not considered “woke propaganda”. They were just self-evident facts.
This “non-woke” part of America that Weiss and Savodnik seem to venerate is not a place that they really know anything about. If they did, they’d have to plow down the army of straw men they’ve constructed with an industrial hay baler to make a reasonable point. In their formulation, there’s some other America where kids tolerate being bullied, and tolerate bigotry. Because they’re tougher. Because their parents shoved them full of peanuts at six months and rubbed their faces in the dirt. Because they didn’t go to college and learn about critical race theory, and no one ever got fired for saying something racist, which appears to be the worst form of oppression Savodnik can imagine. And everything is fine there.
But it’s not fine there, and that’s not what happens. We’ve had school shootings that were openly tied to the misogyny of young men who marinated in that kind of toxic masculinity the right likes to celebrate. We have LGBTQ kids who are tormented and some end up killing themselves or being killed by others. Kids are on the receiving end of racist bullying and violence all the time.
These are not, as Savodnik puts it, people on the receiving end of “mean words.” And the worst actions don’t start with mere “mean words”, either. They start with low level dehumanization. Teaching sons that they’re entitled to sex from women. Teaching children that people of other races are inferior, or that people with other sexual orientations have psychological problems. Insinuating these things without saying them. Using the Bible to justify them, and having the temerity to call this perversion “family values.”
Kids who grow up in these kind of environments do not end up tougher or harder or less coddled. They just end up less empathetic, more cloistered in the way they view the world.
My husband and I have a kind of good cop / bad cop routine where my husband routinely beats our kid in chess and I intentionally don’t. As a result, my kid thinks I suck at chess, and my husband is Garry Kasparov. We do this because there needs to be some balance and we both teach him strategy while we’re doing it. (And it’s not a hard rule; sometimes I win, sometimes my husband loses.)
I also think we play these roles because in other instances I’m usually the bad cop, and I can be a pretty brutal bad cop. My brothers and I were all competitive, but in different ways, and we all played sports. They were great athletes who were offered sports scholarships and I was good at warming various varsity benches with my ass. But before we learned how to win at any sports, we learned how to lose. The only thing I remember about tee-ball at the age of five was walking past the other team and shaking hands and saying “good game,” no matter what. (And maybe applying what the author inexplicably calls a graphic tattoo, extracted from a Bazooka bubble gum, which our coaches distributed liberally after the games even though we did not live in Echo Park.) It was wrong to humiliate the people who’d lost, just as it was wrong to cheat.
And this was because my dad, who was not a person that Weiss or Savodnik would derisively call woke, wanted to instill in us a sense of fairness. Which is not the same as justice, but it’s related.
It was not performative, and neither is the sense of fairness that we here in Liberal BrooklynTM try to teach our kids. We do not want our kids to live in, as Savodnik puts it, “galactic reservoirs of ignorance”, especially about, as he warns “the past.” That is precisely why we teach them that if they’re white, if they’re boys, if they’re straight, if they grow up with money, in good schools, they do experience life differently and it gives them certain privileges. Understanding that is fundamental to justice, because none of the things that Savodnik talks about as being “real problems” can be understood as incidental to it. The horrors that Savodnik will acknowledge did not happen in a vacuum. The villains are incubated in childhood, most of the time, via small dehumanizations that children learn from their parents and community. They develop a sense that winning something is the only thing that matters, and that people who’ve lost in some way are inherently lesser than. And they assume that their wins are a function of their hard work, their superiority. But the society we all live in is not a big chess game. Wins are not necessarily a function of more skill, more intelligence, or more effort. People lose and they don’t deserve it, and they suffer for it. Savodnik doesn’t think it’s his place to care:
This is what he considers the real threat to equality: caring about the suffering of others and accountability for what he calls non-existent crimes, but most people would put more directly as “saying racist things in public forums”. And he’s mostly offended by the idea that empathy is a moral good, and that having it might be more moral than not. (The suggestion that Jim Crow is being casually invoked in The Discourse for bad faith reasons against the backdrop of Georgia’s voter suppression efforts deserves a scathing critique of its own, but that too is a form of obliviousness and historical illiteracy rooted in a failure to consider the experiences of others.)
Savodnik willfully denies that the game is rigged in his favor, and in the favor of people who’ve historically benefited from injustice, and he does not think it’s his job to try to make it fairer. The only empathy he has is for himself, because he can’t just say whatever he wants with no consequences. In fact, he insists that the mere suggestion that he might have started the game with a few extra points is a greater injustice than the fact that he started with extra points. And people in Park Slope who teach their kids that this is not the case must be doing it performatively, because he is a solipsist who can’t fathom that anyone doesn’t secretly harbor his own apathy about these things.
Here’s something else he doesn’t see, perhaps willfully: people who did not start with extra points on the board look him in the eye on a daily basis and politely say “good game,” even when he does not deserve it and did not win fairly. They often recognize his humanity, even if he refuses to recognize theirs, or can only imagine it in the context of his own potential suffering. They are expected to be good losers.
And he is allowed to be a bad winner. That people may occasionally point that out is not injustice.
[Recurring disclosure feature: No one in my immediate family has any allergies that I know of, nut or otherwise, and I’m fairly certain that my child is probably on the playground at school eating dirt right now. But I am not under the impression that these things are indicative of my exemplary parenting.]