On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.


So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.


 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression – as inspired by a passage from Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood.”


“If, as has been shown for ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers, women in the most meat-dependent foraging societies spend less time procuring food and more time engaged in the production of technology and performing nonsubsistence tasks, then Clovis women likely spent the majority of their time not gathering plants.  In this sense, equating women solely with plant gathering is reducing their role in prehistoric societies to activities for which they may have spent little time and effort.  The ‘shrinking’ phenomenon may not be entirely the effect of preservational bias but the inherent bias of archaeologists limiting female labor to the plant realm.”

     ~ From Nicole Waguespack’s article “The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies.”

There’s a term in there – “perservational bias” – that I hadn’t seen.  I guess that shows how little archaeology I’ve studied.  The idea: if a task uses tools that will decompose – anything with wooden baskets, or even a free-standing windmill – then it might fade away and disappear from the archaeological record.  People digging through the strata later will find only durable tools – a stone arrowhead, for instance – and get a skewed impression of how people spent their time.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting – modern archaeologists, given the biases present in their own societies, ascribed limited roles to prehistoric women.  Waguespack wanted to address that bias, arguing that if women’s contribution to diet wasn’t needed, they probably still did *something* as opposed to sitting around twiddling their thumbs all day.  Seems like a reasonable assumption, right?

And I came across this article because I was trying to learn what percentage of people’s time was spent on food production through prehistory.

This article does have a chart of numbers for the time spent on foraging for modern hunter-gatherer societies – often four to six hours per day – although, really, the numbers I should’ve been looking for were for early agricultural societies.  Because hunter-gatherer societies are often regarded as highly egalitarian, and I’d just come across this passage in Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood:”

“By the end of the fifteenth century CE, agrarian civilizations would be established in the Middle East, South and East Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and in every one–whether in India, Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, the Levant, China, Greece, or Scandinavia–aristocrats would exploit their peasants as the Sumerians did.  Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity.  Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible.  Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being.  As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefited from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the vast majority of men and women.  Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.'”

That passage gave me a lot to think about.  Many people participating in the modern economy of the United States feel a residual squeamishness because the distribution of capital in this country is deeply rooted in the history of slavery and genocide – if you buy a house, well, no one *made* the land it’s sitting on, so if you delve far enough back through time murder or the threat of violence was necessary for that piece of land to be claimed by someone, who then sold it to someone else, onward through time until it ended up with you.  But I hadn’t previously considered the idea that *all* the trappings of modern culture – so much of it brought to us by discoveries rooted in the scientific method – is rooted in oppression. Early scientists were aristocrats: no one else had as much free time to pursue experiments.

So, right, I rooted around to find some numbers (in the United States, for instance, we went from 90% of the populace being employed in food production some 200 years ago to less than 2% today – so presumably the percentage of people working in food production was 90% or higher through most of history), and spent a while thinking about this.  And figured I could write an essay, because I’d recently written one that mentioned gene duplication events as a driver for evolution.  Not sure what article I posted for this fact previously – I have many in mind for this topic – so here’s a nice recent review by Katju & Bergthorsson, again stressing that gene duplication events give you room to maneuver:Gene-duplication

“[G]iven that most mutations are degenerative, a duplicated gene is much more likely to end up as a pseudogene than to acquire a function that is distinct from the ancestral gene and actively maintained by natural selection. Loss of one copy, either due to deletion or mutational inactivation is the fate of the overwhelming majority of duplicated genes.”

Which, right – most of the time accumulated mutations after a gene duplication event turn your new sequence into symbolic dreck – but, think, without the prior duplication, you would’ve even have the chance to try out that dreck.  Mutations that reduce the function of a necessary gene, if there were only a single copy, would be selected against.

And I wanted to write an essay about the metaphorical link between gene duplication events and the oppressive taxation that Armstrong wrote about.  Perhaps I should include one last background quote – from Richard Dawkins’ introduction of the concept of “meme,” an evolving bit of culture, presented in his work “The Selfish Gene.”

“We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present.  Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.  We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help.  All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.”

The idea is that culture will also evolve, in a way similar to the evolution of genetic sequences.  As long as a bit of culture is good at propagating itself – either a story that’s fun to hear, or fun to tell, or a piece of knowledge that helps its carrying people survive – it’ll pass through the ages.  You might think of biblical proscriptions against certain foods.  If those foods caused people to get sick, there’s a survival benefit to the meme’s carriers by propagating them, and they’re encased in the bible, which people enjoy reading from.  Their very souls depend on it.

But any scientific or technological discovery “evolves” similarly.  The principles of mathematics, the scientific method, knowledge about electricity.  As our knowledge is refined, in ways that make what we have to say more useful, it’s spread more widely … to the point that now 80% of the world’s population has access to electricity.

(Also: only eighty percent?  We are not doing a great job.)

But for that process to start, electricity has to be discovered in the first place.  And that is what I see as the link between stratified oppression and gene duplication events.  Once humans were living in agricultural societies, where there was a big benefit to ownership of capital (which, right – this claim can be contested.  The whole idea that farming heralded the beginning of stratification and oppression.  Heather Pringle wrote a nice article on the effect of staked claims in pre-agricultural societies – think, “This is my fishing rock… go sit somewhere else!”  Or, “This is where I hunt for berries… in this here berry patch… go forage over there, in that rocky field!”  But there isn’t any evidence that any pre-agricultural peoples attempted to build the type of long-ranging empire made possible by farming), by using violence or the threat thereof to claim ownership of land and tax the people working it, you create leisure time.  Like a duplicated gene, the person who no longer needs to work for food is free to do something else.

And I think the analogy goes farther.  Most duplicated genes degenerate and produce nothing of value.  And I personally imagine that most aristocrats through history were more the Caligula type – only drinking some wine, sleeping with some slaves, causing trouble – than the Ben Franklin type (who, uh, did other stuff too).  But, because useful information spreads so rapidly, it took only a miniscule fraction of good ones to create our modern culture.

This perspective – the idea that stratification was important to give the lucky few a chance to pursue cultural advances – also gives me a new vantage for some passages from the Ramayana.  Many of the hardest passages for me are those involving caste.  The idea that a kingdom would be thrown out of balance if someone who’s supposed to be oppressed instead pursues enlightenment is pretty horrible to me. Here’s a passage from M.N. Dutt’s translation of the Ramayana:

“On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

“For what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

“Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

“Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

“O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

“O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

“The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.”


Right?  Very crumby.  Dude is just trying to be good!  But the king’s job was to ensure that oppressed people stay oppressed.  And now I, sitting here typing on a laptop computer, surrounded by all the comforts of the modern world, am the disconcerted beneficiary.