Thursday, April 12, 2012

American Exceptionalism: nails in the coffin

The idea of American Exceptionalism--something I've broached before--is not new. It stems from the early years of colonization by English settlers, in particular the Puritans who envisioned their colony as a "shining city on the hill." The Revolutionary War--the War for Independence--reinforced the idea, as did the role of America as a haven for immigrants seeking opportunity and freedom.

And despite the black marks on American history, like slavery, the shameful treatment of American Indians by the Unites States government, the Vietnam War, and the like, the idea of American Exceptionalism has persisted. The World Wars fed the idea mightily, as the world seemed to turn--in the minds of Americans--to the United States not once, but twice, to save it from the arch-villains of Germany and Japan. The aftermath of these wars secured the dominant role of the United States over the world economy, as did the ultimate outcome of the Cold War, when yet another great villain fell to the twin spirits of capitalism and freedom.

The economic ascendancy of the United States tracks well with the growth of the myth. De Tocqueville, writing of America in the nineteenth century before the Civil War, popularized the idea it is true. And in those years, the United States was a not a rich nation, not compared to the great empires of Europe and Asia. But after the Civil War, the economy of the United States grew steadily, aided by natural resources and an ever-growing population eager to find prosperity. By the turn of the century, just before World War I, New York replaced London as the world's financial capital. This was no small thing. British financial dominance had been secure for a century, having supplanted Amsterdam and the Dutch.

And really, some of this is the luck of the draw. The United States, learning from England (which had learned from the Netherlands), promoted commerce first and foremost. But it also had--from the beginning--natural resources, far beyond those of the British Isles or the Netherlands. With private property laws that built on these previously successful nations, the economy of the United States was always a sleeping giant, freed at last by the end of slavery, which had inhibited real growth for a number of reasons.

Throughout the past hundred years--aside for major events like wars and the economic dominance of America--the idea of exceptionalism is periodically enforced by smaller things. The hippie and free speech movements of the sixties, for instance, fit this bill. As does the worldwide fame of American films and filmstars, along with American music and the common themes therein. And then there is sports.

In August of 1936, Jesse Owens claimed four Gold Medals and was the indisputable star of the Olympic Games, this despite a concerted and well-funded effort by the Nazis to use the games as propaganda to prove Aryan superiority. Thus, an American from a poor background was more than a match for Germans bred to compete and win (a theme repeated, albeit with Soviets instead of Germans, in the abysmal but highly successful Rocky IV). That was the tale, anyway. And it was--and remains--a powerful one.

In 1980, it happened again, but this time with an entire team of Americans. The event? The Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. An American ice hockey team composed of amateurs--college players, mostly--defeated the Soviet team, composed of amateurs who were really professionals: members of Red Army teams who did nothing but play hockey and train, year round. The Soviets had dominated hockey in the Olympics for decades (though an American team had beaten them in 1960, a point often forgotten) and were once again the favorites to win Gold in 1980. Yet, the Americans rose up and took the Gold from the Soviets.

The lesson for Americans (that they imagined and still imagine was shared by the world)? We can still beat you, even when you stack the deck to win. It's powerful line; it strokes the ego and is difficult to counter. What could the Soviets really say in response, knowing the truth of the matter?

And that brings us to men's basketball. A sport created in the United States, it's no surprise that--once it became an Olympic sport--the United States dominated the competitions, initially winning the first seven Golds given, until being upset in 1972 at Munich. At that point, it was recognized that the world was catching up, that basketball had become an international sport. The Soviets--who desperately wanted to defeat the Americans in all things (the reverse is true, also)--had already begun training athletes year round in the sport, in the same way as ice hockey. Other countries were beginning to follow suit. '72 was a watershed moment for basketball in the rest of the world, as it demonstrated that American dominance was not a foregone conclusion.

After the boycotts in '80 and '84, the Americans failed to win Gold once again at the 1988 Games. And that's when things changed. The American story then was the same as in hockey: "out athletes are kids, amateurs, not professional men with years and years of professional training under their belts, and anyway our professional players would cream any team in the world, with ease." Remember those days, the editorials screaming for "sports justice"? And the Olympic Committee, in their infinite wisdom, acquiesced in 1986, allowing professional athletes to compete in the Olympics. In 1989, FIBA determined that NBA players would be allowed to compete in the Olympics, as well.

And that set the stage for the 1992 Olympics and the arrival of the Dream Team. The team--arguably the most talented basketball team ever assembled--destroyed all opposition on its way to a Gold Medal, winning by an average of over 40 points per game. With Bird, Jordan, Barkley, Johnson, Malone, and so on, many opposing teams were in awe, thrilled just to be on the same court with these legends, with their own personal heroes.

Point made.

And in my view, that should have been the end of it. Professional athletes in the United States are--by and large--multi-millionaires. And their teams--and leagues--have a vested interest in minimizing risks outside of league play. I'd much rather watch--during the Olympics--the kids play, even if they lose. I'd much rather hope for another miracle.

But things didn't go down that way. The commercial success of the Dream Team brought on more and more incarnations--the Dream Team II, III, etc.--many of which were successful (though scores were getting closer and closer) until the 2004 Olympics, when the U.S. team managed to secure only a Bronze.

And now, as the 2012 Olympics near, another team of NBA players is set to make the trip. They'll probably do well; I'm supremely uninterested, made moreso by one member's inane comments:
Count two-time Olympian and Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade among those who believe NBA players should be paid for playing with Team USA in the London Olympics.

"It's a lot of things you do for the Olympics -- a lot of jerseys you sell," Wade said after the Heat's practice on Wednesday in advance of Thursday's game against Chicago. "We play the whole summer. I do think guys should be compensated. Just like I think college players should be compensated as well.
It's bad enough that the spirit of competition has been banished, now we have people who want to talk about money, about getting paid to represent the country in an open, friendly competition?

Personally, I was thrilled to death in 1992. The point was made, a point that admittedly fed the egos of Americans like me. And the world of today in not the world of the eighties. There is no Evil Empire, no arch villain for America to face (for the moment), so it would have been better to leave the illusions in place, not shatter them with greed and heresy.

I know that no one has asked for my opinion, but I'll give it anyway: go back to the collage kids; in fact, just let the current NCAA champions represent the United States. That's enough, right there. Win or lose, they'll do the country proud. And leave the myth intact. For now.

Cheers, all.

Update: As has been pointed out to me, my description of the Miracle on Ice is somewhat misleading, insofar as the American team did not win the Gold Medal when it defeated the Soviet team. It still needed to defeat Finland--which it did--to win the Gold.


  1. Robert - wish we could sit comfortably and chat over coffee. I would gently harass you over the concept of American Exceptionalism, but only over coffee.

    I think, I accept it now as axiomatic, that our generation has been up to our armpits in propaganda since we were born - and while there are many things to agree with you upon, the devil is in the details.

    I am definitely with you on the NCAA champs representing us in the Olympics, for what I think you would appreciate as "all the right reasons."


  2. Roy, I don't disagree about the propaganda, at all. I guess there's a lack of clarity in my bit, in this regard. That, or the tone of my article isn't coming through, in total.

    I know it's there (propaganda), I know its role, and I know it can be a load of bull. But all peoples, all nations, all times have their own illusions, for such constructs are functional, in an anthropological sense and in an everyday sense, with regard to societal cohesion and continuity. This can just as easily lead to bad things as it can to good: it's a razor's edge (there's even a Star Trek episode that makes the same point). Always has been.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Well, there are a couple of issues with your story (though the general gist is ok). Take hockey, for example. You had Canadian professionals playing from time to time (you actually had Soviet team, or CSKA playing friendly games with the Canadian professional teams). the outcomes were not foregone conclusions (and neither was the Olympic outcome, especially considering that most other countries sent professional players as well). Czecks always had strong teams, as well as Sweedes. Up till after 2000, you had four strongest teams in the world (you saw it in World Championships and not just in the Olympics) -- Canadians, Russians/Soviets, Czechs and Sweedes. Then you had a second tier -- US and Finland, and then the rest. And this was true whether professional NHL players participated or not. Sure, some times US or the Finns made an upset, but that was a general direction. After 2000 Finns joined the first tier. By that time you also had a bunch of Europeans playing in the NHL and a lot of outcomes depended on who actually came to play. Some European players were leaders in their NHL teams (Yaromir Yager and Timo Selani spring to mind apart from a few Russians) etc.

    In terms of Basketball. Dream Team I really was a dream team. And it was at a time when few Europeans played in the NBA. And yet, in the final, they won over Croatia by something like 10 points if memory serves me right. More generally, since then, many leading Europeans play in the NBA (and the Yugoslavs in particular traditionally have strong teams). The European Basketball is far closer in style to US colledge basketball, and the differences in levels had shrunk. A good US team of NBA players is still a favorite, but the outcomes are no longer a foregone conclusion (neither is a game against a colledge team, even though the favorites would be the other way). The point is, Basketball is a completely professional game today, whether in US or in Europe. Whining about getting paid to play is a disgrace, I agree, but sending your best team to compete is not a bad idea, imo.

  4. Dm, I'm not suggesting hockey would have gone any differently in the past, had the US used pro players. The point is, the US played unpaid amateur athletes for the most part, but especially in hockey and basketball. And that was fine; it fit the the American narrative, ala "the rest of the world can play who they want; we'll let our kids play, win or lose. And we can still win. So there."

    I'm not saying the narrative is true, at all. It's propaganda and feeds a mythical view of America.

    But that's not always a bad thing, as a matter of course.