Friday, May 27, 2005

Ken Jennings: Latter-Day Ozymandias?

I met a traveler from and antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped in these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When Percy Bysshe Shelley penned these words in 1817, I am sure he more possibly had the likes of Napoleon on his mind than a software programmer from Salt Lake City, Utah. Still, yesterday when Ken Jennings lost the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, I was reminded of these immortal musings on the fates of the once great and powerful.
I was reminded of another related instance from the more distant past. When ancient Roman generals and military victors would take part in grand parades to honor their might and the glory of the empire, it was whispered into his ear during the parade that "all glory is fleeting."
We all have experienced similar feelings, not only in our personal lives, but in the history of our times. Some are spurred to say "good riddance" to these smug and sneering former people of import, ascribing their defeats to the hubris that can accompany all successes in life. These are the people who see a person like Ken Jennings and just itch each day for him to fail so that he may be "put back in his place." Similarly, we take purile joy when the great, rich, smart, powerful, successful fall from their heights and assume their position among us or (even better for some) fall to new lows and degrade themselves even more. These moves, to many, are the fair and great leveller, that which insures the egalitarian nature of our society.
Why do we seem to take such delight when the successful gain such punishment? These people need not be famous. This could be that guy at the office who always seems one step ahead. It could be that really smart girl at school who seems to have it all in a row. It could be the people next door who seem to have life by the throat while you gasp for air. We wait and wait and look for these people to mess up, taking great joy when they do. This passive form of resistance to the successful in life is an interesting dynamic.
What does it say about us? Are we anti-success? Is it that we don't like having success defined for us, prefering to have our own personal victories? Have we become so lazy that the only way to win is waiting for others to lose and be the best of what's left?
What do a people's ideas, individually and collectively, about success and failure say about the society and culture as a whole?

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