illary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened, has prompted both praise for her supposed courage in writing it and criticism for the Chardonnay-soaked levels of self-pity in which it indulges. Left unmentioned is the fact that the book is also the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with our culture’s understanding of failure.
“We’ve never been quite sure what to do with our also-rans,” wrote Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times recently. But that’s not true. Most losers, especially in politics, used to withdraw quickly and go off in search of other, more lucrative ventures out of the public eye (Al Gore, for example, became a partner in a venture-capital firm, among other well-paying gigs). Boylan, by contrast, laments the public’s desire to see political losers retreat from the public stage, “humble, dignified, and silent,” and she praises Hillary for “refusing to go along with this ritual.”
Hillary’s other media enablers seem to agree; in a September issue timed to the release of Hillary’s new memoir, the New Yorker published the cover art the magazine would have run had Hillary actually won the presidency. It features a dignified woman in red in the Oval Office, staring calmly up at a full moon, alongside David Remnick’s epic understatement that, unlike Al Gore, Hillary will “have a hard time finding a similar peace or place in public affairs.” Who needs a cowed and quiet has-been like Gore or Michael Dukakis when you can have a nonstop media blitz by an aggrieved Clinton who refuses to exit the public stage?
And Hillary isn’t the only one. In the press and in public life, every disastrous tech-company CEO is deemed merely “too brash.” Sexting politicians or assaultive Hollywood producers or actors attempt to recast themselves as misunderstood addicts rather than what they are: losers. Within moments of hearing a publicist-crafted apology or acknowledgement of failure, we are given detailed descriptions of the loser’s proposed rehabilitation program that is meant to inoculate him or her from too much opprobrium. (“I’m not a loser. I’m a victim of my addiction,” etc.)
Worse, our culture now treats people who have failed as if they possess a special sort of knowledge—even when they have spent little time in the wilderness thinking about their mistakes. Numerous business and self-help books and TED talks now feature titles such as “The Success of Failure” and “Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World.” There’s even an organization, F**kUp nights, “a global movement and event series that shares stories of professional failures,” that sponsors meetings during which businessmen and women talk about their worst career choices. BBC praised the group for celebrating failure: “The aim of the events is to take the sting, shame, and guilt out of failure, share stories in a supportive environment, workshop the experiences, and figure out what could have been done differently,” which sounds like a pretty good description of Hillary’s book-publicity tour.
Yes, “failure chic,” as Joe Queenan has called it, is everywhere. Silicon Valley embraces the mantra “Fail gracefully.” Even Oprah has declared, “Failing is another stepping stone to greatness.”
In fact, failure isn’t always a stepping stone to greatness. It’s often a series of mistakes that leads to well-deserved ignominy (and in some cases, prison). In our eagerness to rebrand failure as a possible by-product of taking brave risks, we’ve lost sight of the importance of the justice behind it as well as our collective need to see that justice meted out.
In the real world, after all, when someone fails or loses, we expect consequences, not lavish book advances or invitations to deliver a TED talk. Enforcing consequences for failure is important, not just for individuals but for society. This impulse, especially when it’s directed at public figures, is often criticized as schadenfreude or as a petty desire to shame others, but in fact it’s a deeply felt need linked to our notions of right and wrong, one that ultimately contributes to social cohesion.
The public understands this. Consider a September 2017 Rasmussen Reports survey that found the following: “Just 30 percent of likely U.S. voters believe [Hillary] Clinton still has a future in public life. Sixty-one percent say it’s time for her to retire, up from 55 percent just after she lost the presidential election to Trump last November.” The message is clear: The more Clinton insists on her own importance to the nation, the more people just want her to go gently into the political goodnight. And yet, as Hillary told CBS’s Sunday Morning, “I am not done with politics because I literally believe that our country’s future is at stake.”
The flip side of Hillary’s willful refusal to accept her failure is Donald Trump’s eagerness to call anyone who opposes him a “loser.” Nevertheless, Trump’s promiscuous use of the label “loser” is as appealing to his supporters as it is frustrating to his opponents. His supporters see this as “straight talk,” and it should come as no surprise to anyone who ever watched Trump on The Apprentice. One of the few places you can still find the rituals of public failure played out in full is on reality TV. On such shows, people get voted off the island for laziness or kicked out of fat camp for failing to lose weight on The Biggest Loser, or otherwise humiliated for not living up to expectations. Reality TV exacts swift and often harsh punishments, which is why it’s so satisfying to watch.
When you turn failure into little more than a therapeutic life stage, there’s no longer cultural support for having losers suffer the consequences of their actions. This is why calling Hillary’s campaign or Donald Trump’s administration failures (which they are) quickly devolves into partisan mudslinging. Remove the customs that have long surrounded the experience of failure, and what you have left is a banal self-help ritual devoid of any meaningful social power. As a result, there’s no strength to the charge of failure. Indeed, an increasing number of politicians and “thought leaders” wear their failures as badges of honor. When they fail, and fail again, they simply claim to have learned and “grown” from each experience and move on. A business consultant named Tim Leberecht, in a piece for the TED website, thinks all of us should embrace this failure-as-winning approach to life, and he encourages people to participate in “communities like Burning Man, OuiShare or DO Lectures that sporadically assemble and offer us shelter from the paths of linear logic.” He advises: “Let’s try to look at our lives as one long, evolving concession speech.”
No, let’s not. Refusal to acknowledge failure is the worst sort of hubris, and today it’s a bipartisan scourge. Recall that Hillary Clinton refused to give a concession speech the night she lost the election and later admitted she hadn’t even prepared one, so certain was she that failure was not an option. As historian Scott Sandage notes in his history of failure in America, “the promise of America is that nobody is born a loser.” Maybe not. But we are fooling ourselves if we think there isn’t also harm in believing that no one becomes one.