American exceptionalism and other things that aren’t great but are

Am I understanding “American exceptionalism” incorrectly?

Yesterday, I tweeted the following:

At the time, I think I was thinking more about politics than soccer. But it was a little of both.

A couple of responses:

So I said this (specifically responding to Dr. Chopra, a neuroscientist in addition to being a soccer journalist):

I can agree with that. But not everyone can …

If you go to Wikipedia, you’ll find several attempts to define (or, in some cases, redefine) the term. Start with the greatest observer of 19th century America, Alexis de Tocqueville:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.

(Yes, feel free to argue that we are indeed “lapsing into barbarism” now. De Tocqueville was perceptive and eloquent, not psychic.)

Another definition from an AP Government crib sheet: “the belief that the US is special and unique because we have an optimistic and humanistic view on society to change the future and learn from the past.”

Really? Hmmmm. Maybe AP courses really aren’t that useful.

Back to Wikipedia for what I’ve found is the best-written definition, from Scottish political scientist Richard Rose: “America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture.”

Go through that quote, the rest of the Wikipedia summary of scholarly debate and other sources, and you come up with the following things that are different about the USA:

  • Our Protestant/Puritan history
  • The absence of a feudal history
  • The lack of a monarch that has ever reigned on U.S. soil (King George III was an absentee monarch. And an amusing lunatic. See Monty Python.)
  • Everyone here is from somewhere else. A handful of people can trace their ancestry back to pre-Revolutionary America, but even they only arrived 350 years ago, and most of us have been here for a much shorter time.
  • This country is huge. Really huge. Just staggeringly huge.

Now … do those things make us better? It’s an interesting argument in its own right.

  • Pros: We have a blank slate on which the Founders built a new democracy, we benefit from waves of immigrants coming in and bringing their perspectives, and we have a “can-do” attitude dating back to our frontier days.
  • Cons: We overran Native Americans, then turned around and heaped scorn on any immigrant with the temerity to come along after us. Also, we have a lot of fundamentalists who refuse to believe science, and we have a general sense of arrogance. Basically, we do what we want, and we don’t listen to others.

So what does all this have to do with soccer? Why am I writing this on a soccer blog in response to other Soccer Twitter folks?

Well, I did get this accusatory tweet …

It goes back to the essential book Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (yes, that’s an affiliate link, so if you’re adamantly opposed to Amazon giving me 10 cents, buy it somewhere else).

From Amazon: “The authors argue that when sports culture developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nativism and nationalism were shaping a distinctly American self-image that clashed with the non-American sport of soccer. Baseball and football crowded out the game. Then poor leadership, among other factors, prevented soccer from competing with basketball and hockey as they grew. By the 1920s, the United States was contentedly isolated from what was fast becoming an international obsession.”

The authors, Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman, are hardly out on a limb here. In my book, Long-Range Goals: The Success Story (yes, I’d change the subtitle now if I could) of Major League Soccer, I referenced Offside along with other works — Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy and Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World — to demonstrate the history and sociology that work against soccer in the USA. (Read that passage on Google Books if you like. Or buy the damn book.)

So to answer Kyle’s question … um … yes? Maybe?

“Central to my worldview” is a bit of a loaded statement. It implies that I’m happy about American exceptionalism. I am not. I wish we would borrow European ideas on health care, social services, mass transit, and yes, sports.

do think some of those ideas need to be modified to account for what’s different about the United States. As much as I’d love to be able to go around the country by rail as I did in Germany, that’s not really feasible in the USA, at least when you start going out West. And when we talk about how we’re going to organize sports, we need to account for our unusual sports history.

American exceptionalism exists in the academic definitions listed above. Some aspects of it (the size of this nation, barring secession) will never change. Other aspects are driven by our attitude. We think we’re different; therefore, we are. (To quote Crash Davis alongside Descartes: “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you *are*!”)

We can try to change that attitude. We can at least try to chip away at it so we can have single-payer health care, reasonable gun laws and a more open soccer system. But we can’t deny it exists.





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