The worst in us

Competition instills conformity and stifles differences — differences that, for some, open the gates of hell

BRATTLEBORO — In many ways, American society is very harsh. We embrace competition and predatory business behavior while showing little sympathy for those who get cleaned out by the predators.

Someone who is unlucky in business, or helpless against the invisible tides of addiction, is allowed to live homeless and to go to waste or worse. Take what happened the other day when the cops in St. Petersburg, Fla., sliced up the tents in a homeless encampment with box cutters.

We avoid taking responsibility for the social wreckage by trotting out tropes about choice, without wondering too much why so many thousands “choose” a different path from the straight and narrow that is commonly touted as the route to the “American Dream.”

I am a person who was left for naught. If I hadn't had a friend who didn't care what the neighbors thought and allowed me to park in his driveway with an electrical cord between my van and his house, things would have been much worse.

I struggled each day with thoughts of resentment and revenge, interspersed with fewer and fewer hopes until I was, strangely enough, fortunate to be found chronically ill and eligible for Social Security payments.

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It has always puzzled me about competition. We revere it, but in my experience, it is ugly and harmful. It brings out the worst in people. Large corporations as well as individuals engage in deceitful and devious behavior in the name of it.

Competition prompts people to cheat, and very often competitors will resort to violence. Ask anyone who has tried to organize a union in a Third World country with a “business friendly” right-wing dictatorship.

In addition, competition instills conformity and stifles differences. It requires that we install comparisons as a central feature of our everyday thought process ($0.99 vs. $1.29, .329 batting average vs. .263, etc.). You can't very well have a competition between incomparable activities, such as blueberry pie baking vs. pole vaulting. You need both competitors to do the same thing.

If you don't conform in America, the gates of hell are held open for you. The courts will punish you mercilessly for trying to meet your needs in public spaces, and the companies that “serve” you will levy unreasonable charges because they know you have nowhere else to go.

That's heartless, ugly, and barbaric, really. It's a feeding frenzy on the defenseless.

And of this, we are proud?

Imagine how confusing it might be to a young person who tries to reconcile such harsh ostensible teachings with the didactic teaching that America is the land of individualism and diversity.

And we wonder why the young are apathetic!

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