America professes to forever side with the loveable underdog, the plucky, gritty alone-against-the-world, heart o’ gold underdog whose struggle, we say, mirrors our own national identity. We never give up, no matter what the odds.
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight,” Mark Twain famously opined. “It’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
If you saw it, you remember it: the Boise State football team upsetting Oklahoma in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, an improbably victory punctuated by several jaw-dropping trick plays for the football fan and a post-game marriage proposal from the star running back to one of the cheerleaders for the romantic.
If you heard it, you remember it: Jennifer Hudson, the ably-proportioned “American Idol” castaway and Hollywood outsider, coming out of nowhere to belt “And I Am Telling You…” in Dreamgirls and walk away with an Academy Award. Though she won every prize that season, each acceptance speech ended in the blubbering, awed amazement of a lucky girl from Chicago who’d just happened to beat the odds and make it big.
If you were there, you remember it: Buster Johnson beats Mike Tyson, “Dewey defeats Truman,” the “Miracle on Ice.” We’ve co-opted this history into our own ethos – nothing is impossible, particularly when you have nothing to lose.
But if you’re the favorite, watch out. Perhaps such a distain for the bigwigs came from, well, the bigwigs: the wigged royalty and rulers of Britain and the many other home countries that spurned their poor, miserable, huddled masses who then passed under Lady Liberty on their way to start fresh on their own two feet. If you’re rich, powerful, beautiful or famous, be warned that our jealousy manifests in our collective unbridled delight at bringing you down.
Today, in the family tree of deranged gossip-fodder celebrity royalty, Queen Britney Spears, Princess Lindsay Lohan and Court Jester Paris Hilton reign supreme. They’re young, rich, famous and at times beautiful.
They seemingly have everything in the world at their disposal and every opportunity to succeed. So boy-oh-boy do we salivate over those photos of them passed out in the front seats of luxury cars, sobbing with thousand-dollar makeup streaming down their faces, rambling on YouTube about how the time-travel in Back to the Future is really going on right now if we’d only take the time to notice it…
In the ultra-masculine hierarchy of college football, nothing hurts worse than getting beat by your little brother. Ask powerhouse Michigan, the boastful owner of the all-time wins record for a Division I-A program, how it feels to be at the receiving end of an underdog’s wrath?
Appalachian State, a Division I-AA power, came into “the Big House” in Michigan and obliterated any hopes of an Ann Arbor national championship. The Appalachian Mountaineers, meanwhile, will forever be that little team that could, much to the glee of Michigan-haters everywhere.
This game raises a fundamental question: does the creation of an underdog by necessity require the establishment of a corresponding “overdog,” a fat cat, a favorite? To truly love the underdog, must we dislike or despise the opponent? And if we are indeed a country that loves the underdog, are we also then a confrontational people, just as eager to vilify as to canonize?
Even more questionable is our seemingly effortless conditionality for the underdog. Our founding fathers stare proudly back at us from our coins and bills for overcoming the powerful British Empire, yet the Vietnamese were “guerillas” and the Iraqis are “insurgents.” Oh, and to the remaining Native Americans, you fought a good fight to save your land and way of life against the hordes of smallpox-laden visitors landing on the shores, but sometimes Might is Right and Manifest is Destiny.
When we claim that we’re a people who love a good underdog, I respectfully abstain. I think America has been and continues to be an infinitely inventive historian that very keenly chooses its underdogs, selectively placing only the clean-cut, God-Bless-America rebels on the pages of its finely printed books. I think our withered conception of heroic revolt stands out only against the backdrop of “progress” – the innumerable, nameless contests when the big and powerful snuff out the plucky and gritty.
So underdogs everywhere, understand the challenge that awaits you. Not only must you improbably defeat your vastly superior foe, but you must triumph over the judgment of history. Nobody said it was going to be easy.