Is there enough to go around? Do you feel as if you need to compete for every single thing that you get and protect it against loss at all costs, or do you believe that there’s enough for everybody if we do our best, work hard and act as responsible citizens?
When I was a graduate student in New York in the 1980s, I lived not far from the Lone Star Cafe. The famous music venue — Paul Simon mentions it in a song — was crowned by a 40-foot sculpture of a giant iguana, and its motto was emblazoned right under the giant lizard: “Too Much Is Not Enough.”
As an emblem for the 1980s, it was perfect, given the “American-Psycho,” “Bright Lights, Big City” sense of self-indulgence during those heady days of the early Reaganomics. The grab-and-go, catch-and-don’t-release mentality was everywhere. Even though as a graduate student I was eating Ramen Noodles five days a week, there was a sense that everything, from the stock market to the salaries of regular folks, was going to, like a continuously rising tide, raise all boats.
After 9/11, of course, the city changed. The country changed. Our motto changed. It became clear that not enough was, well, not enough — and that “not enough” was all too common for all too many people.
A fondness for grit replaced a fondness for glitter after the various financial collapses proved that trickle-down economics leads to a splashy upper class but never makes it far enough down to slake the thirst of even the working poor, let alone the genuinely impoverished.
The American image of the economic windfall, of labor falling into the hands of anyone willing to work — anyone with diligence enough to deserve a living wage — has been replaced by the fear of scarcity and the worry that if you get yours, I won’t get mine.
That’s where we are today, I fear. And I’m not using the phrase “I fear” as a rhetorical device. I’m more worried about our country than I’ve been since I hid under the desk in my elementary school for duck-and-cover exercises, preparing for nuclear war. And, back then, I wasn’t as aware of how much was at stake as I am now. I’ve become quite fond of life, it turns out.
It’s such a curious, intriguing and remarkable world, it would be a real shame to destroy it.
It would be especially sad, shall we say, to destroy life as we know it on the whim of a demagogue who is driven only by a need to win, who cannot bear the idea of losing even if it means losing all, forever, and for everyone.
So, too, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see life as less of a competition, where from the moment we’re born, we’re pitted against rivals driven by the same fierce desire to claim and possess the few resources that actually exist. I now see it as more of a collective challenge, where every soul strives, wishing for possible and impossible achievements, and where the debt we owe to one another is greater than any individual credit we can attain.
I’m still competitive in my own way; I won’t deny it. But I wouldn’t shove you out of line, push you into the curb or stick out my leg to trip you up. What good is winning if the contest is rigged?
What’s the thrill of coming in first if you take a limo to the finish line? There are very rich writers who buy every copy of the initial printing of their own books to make themselves instant bestsellers; what’s the fun in that?
There’s always been a sense of competition driving Americans to do our best, but now everybody’s a cynic. Most of us, on both sides of the political aisle, believe the contest is not only rigged, but rotten — and we believe the other side is run not by simply by the ideologically nefarious but by actual “nut jobs” (to quote our president).
Underlying a familiar, perhaps respectable, and certainly traditional sense of competition is the current idea that it’s a zero-sum game, with the winners taking all. This is bad for our country and it needs to stop.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.