in Language Watch

Pissed-off Toff ruminates on the philosophy contained in a key-fob which used to send his father’s Jack Russell crazy.

My father once had a Jack Russell terrier called Wriggle. He was a marvellous little fellow, so much so that I decided to make him a baronet, with the result that he became Sir Wriggle de Wroggle, Bt. Although he was usually of a most equitable disposition, there was one thing that sent Sir Wriggle crazy, causing him to bark wildly and jump up several feet into the air.

The object that triggered this frenzy was a key fob which a friend had given my father as a humourous present and which, every time you tapped it, said one of three things in the squeaky sing-song American girl’s voice that we are all familiar with from films and the television. “Loser!” it said. Or: “What-ever!” Or: “I don’t think so!”

Now, I don’t know how much of a philosopher Wriggle was, but it sometimes occurred to me that he had every good reason to bark at that key fob, because if you think about it, those three short expressions perfectly sum up the philosophy and world view not just of modern America, but increasingly of modern Britain as well. And as a philosophy, it is not only unattractive, but – as Jeeves might have said – fundamentally unsound.

It’s only a key fob, I know. And of course it’s a great joke. But let me explain.

Take, first, the term ‘loser’. Could anything be more derisive or more dismissive? The world view that lies behind it, now deeply ingrained in the American psyche, sees life not as a gift from God, but as a competition at which you win or lose, a ruthless affair which sorts the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers’, with the winners being worshipped and the losers being derided. And because in America success is measured by money only, what that means is that “winner = rich = good” and “loser = poor = bad, contemptible, pathetic.”

Leaving aside the fact that this philosophy is entirely materialistic and entirely lacking in ordinary humanity, it contains a fundamental flaw. In almost every game or race or competition, there is just one winner and a lot of non-winners, i.e. losers. In logic, therefore, any philosophy that states that life is worthwhile only if you are the winner is necessarily stating that for most people life must be a disappointment, a race that has not been won. In other words, it condemns most of humanity to nothingness, to worthlessness. As a philosophy, it is evidently absurd.

Absurd it might be; but it has the Americans in its thrall. Any of us could find a thousand examples of this. But here’s just one. Not long ago I saw a large poster advertising some product or service offered by some American company. I can’t remember the details, but there was a giant photo of a square-jawed all-American man, and the slogan was something to the effect that “If I’m not the best of the best, I’m a loser.” Ergo, 99% of humanity are ‘losers’.

Now let us move on to the second word on the key fob, again pronounced in that hoity-toity American girl’s sing-song accent: “What-ever!” This, obviously, is what you say to a ‘loser’ … who, being a loser, is beneath contempt, a miserable worm who has not won (or is unlikely to win) life’s cruel race. And you say it when the loser has expressed some view or opinion which is pathetically deluded, but with which you can’t be bothered to argue. Because why should you waste your time argueing with a loser? What’s the point? So you just say “What-ever!” and squash the worm with this one lethal word.

And finally we come to “I don’t think so!” Is this perhaps the most chillingly disdainful of the three? I’m not sure. Anyhow, it is what a preppy American girl might say to a ‘loser’ who, for example, invites her out to dinner; and I have seen exactly this scene in some American film.

Once more, let us consider.

If, in the kinder English world which is rapidly dying, a boy rings a girl to ask her out, and she isn’t interested, she will say something about being busy that night, and if he tries again she will be busy the next time, too, and she might even add something along the lines of “How sweet of you!” So the poor chap gets the idea, and although he has been informed that he is ‘sweet’ (not in other words a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex or a rampaging stud), he hasn’t been insulted. His self-respect is intact, more or less.

Take the American scenario, however, in which the world is ruthlessly divided into a small top caste of winners and a whole mass of untouchable losers. So. Boy rings girl and asks her out. But the boy isn’t a ‘winner’ and the girl doesn’t want to know. He is, in fact, a contemptible ‘loser’ and must be told so. So again in that same squeaky sing-song voice, the girl says “I don’t think so!” Tum-tee-TUM-tee! Translated into English, what that means is “Me? Go out with you? You must be joking!”

So there you are. American philosophy in a key fob. Sir Wriggle de Wroggle was right to bark at it, and it proves that he deserved that baronetcy. He was, as I say, the most excellent fellow.

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