Socrates is always a good guy to quote: “Beauty is a short-lived tyranny.” Ask any Hollywood glamor girl to explain that. Next, consider this twist to Socrates: “Being best is also a short-lived tyranny.”
By all accounts, America is “the best.” At least in terms of wealth, power, productivity, and global influence. But where does the tyranny thing come in? In the relentless pressure to remain the best. Like the fastest-gun in the Old West, there isn’t a saloon or a hotel bed where you can rest easy. You know there’s always someone out there who’s hungry to out-draw you and thereby claim the crown.
But now here’s where this tyranny is so diabolical. Most of this pressure to produce is self-inflicted. Pride always drives the best to remain the best. And at first that seems so perfectly natural and right. After all, who wants to be second best…?
Before that felicitous cliche is allowed to wobble on its own merits, re-consider those merits. Throughout the history of the modern Olympics, the difference between the winner and the runner up has always, always been in the half minutes, seconds or even mili-seconds. When they return home, Silver eats, sleeps, loves and dies no differently than Gold. More to the point, when a Sicilian farmer tucks his children into bed, he is no less proud or fulfilled than the Wall Street CEO. Really! Unless you’re counting their respective number of bathrooms, iPads, cars and migraines.
True, all this is fiercely counter-intuitive to everything in the American DNA! Our impetus is always to go, to excel, to win, to be-the-best. In the light of that arguable wisdom, today most Americans will embrace without question our need to: increase productivity [regardless of layoffs]…slash spending [regardless of who suffers]…compute faster [regardless of how the brain can no longer keep pace] …build bigger armies [regardless of the military-industrial-complex of which we are all now brutally aware]…oh, and lately this idea of by-passing the intellectual experience of college to go directly into the wealth of Silicon Valley [regardless of how few Steve Jobs there really are out there].
Tyranny, once unleashed, never rests. Like the gunslinger in the Old West, the American Goliath of the New West keeps running faster and harder. Because…well, that’s what you do when you’re in the lead and have never thought deep enough about what losing the lead might actually mean to you. No, not to your industries and stock markets and missile launchers. But to your less-threatened peace of mind at night tucking your children into a bed few others lust to steal, because your bed and your home is not all that much different than theirs.
You know — that illusive, counter-intuitive thing prophets and poets have always tried to preach.
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