Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pondering exceptionalism…

Let’s jump right on in!

This bitch has heard and read a lot about American Exceptionalism.  I first heard it during the Reagan years, but the phrase has recently made a serious come back.

I don’t have a problem with exceptionalism.

My problem is with folks gleefully pointing to the shining city on the hill while they ignore the slums situated toward the back.

I think back to my days as a tennis player.  When I was a wee bitch my father introduced me to tennis as a way to manage my angry frustration with bullies.  I’d hit tennis balls against a wall for hours and work through all the energy that built up in my system…and I got pretty good at it.  Eventually, I began to hit just for the love of hitting…for the thrill of the zing that traveled up my arm when I hit a forehand right in the sweet spot.

I watched tennis on television and practiced with folks at the local courts…and got better and better.  When I heard about a tournament, I begged and pleaded and eventually convinced my parents to pay the entrance fee.  On match day I put on my new bright white tennis outfit, grabbed my racket and prepared to get my Steffi Graf on.

I lost…every damn game…in straight sets.

When it was over I took to my bed, devastated that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was at my favorite thing to do.

My father let me sulk for a night and then took me aside and gave me a verbal correction that has paid off every day since.

He told me that there was a reason I lost.  I was good, but I could be better.  I had a weak backhand because I preferred to hit forehand shots…and my opponent exploited the hell out of that by hitting relentlessly to my weak ass backhand.  My serve could get better and so forth and so on.

My father explained that I could quit or keep on going as I was going…playing the wall or folks at that courts who I could easily beat…or I could work on the weaknesses in my game and then take on the heifer who trounced my ass in the next tournament.

Now, I never developed into an exceptional tennis player.  But I did get a lot better…and I got better by focusing on the parts of my game that needed work rather than running all over the court trying to hit every shot as a forehand because that was the best shot in my limited arsenal. 

I got better from playing people who were better than me and from losing and learning something from every loss until I started winning.

I remember watching the French Open and seeing Steffi Graf trounce her opponent in the final.  The match took less than an hour and folks marveled at the dominance of Graf’s game.  The next day a news report came on about the game and the reporter mentioned that Graf had gone out to practice after that final…to work on her backhand because it had been a little off.  I sat back and let that absorb for a moment – Steffi Graf’s exceptional tennis playing self still strove to get better and still had things to work on even though she damn near set a world speed record in her French Open winning match.

Pause…sip coffee…continue.

For all the talk of exceptionalism coming from the right there is little talk of what isn’t gleaming within the walls of the shining city on the hill.  America has great potential…and it can only reach that potential if Americans keep it real.  But there are some among us who are comfortable hitting the ball against the wall and picking up matches with weekend players they know they can beat.   

It is that lack of examination…that serf mentality crying out that we dare not annoy the rich lest they toss us off their lands…that lack of competitive spirit being applied to those areas that need's that shit that makes claims of exceptionalism a joke. 

Coaches across the land probably still preach that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle

Well, we’ve become really good at talking about how great we are and exceptionally good at making excuses for the shit we don’t do well.

***logs off to do reproductive justice work until justice gets done***


Stella said...

This is excellent and inspirational. As you repeatedly are - thank you.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 article in The New Yorker, "The Talent Myth."

"The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent." -- Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron.

pluky said...

My standard response to assertions of "American Exceptionalism" is except the genocide of indigenous people, except 300 years of slavery, except 100 years of Jim Crow, except a social welfare net worthy of a developed country, except . . . well you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

I very recently had this experience with a writing class - I wish I had read this sooner! This would have been the perfect "talk" I needed to make sure that I didn't curl up into a little ball! (Which is, sadly, what I pretty much did.)

This post is bookmarked. AWESOME. THANK YOU!

Miss Trudy said...

Hmmm. This reminds me, for some reason, of an article I recently read. It stated that the US was way low in the totem pole of Math (and some other academic) skills among the developed nations, but that Americans--us!--were way up there in our self-regard in reference to the education we receive compared to other nations. In other words, we have a high level of self-regard which is not jiving with the larger reality. Does this come as a surprise? It doesn't to me, for I recall commenting something like this to my college students a few years ago, about how badly our education rates compared to other nations, and some of my students arguing that yes, we may have crappy academic levels compared to other countries, but that it doesn't matter because "we are still the best nation in the world".

Political Season said...

I believe we are an exceptional country and people. I don't think its necessary to go around stating it all the time. It ought to be self evident. Exceptional is as exceptional does. We have our faults, tis true. Magnificent ones at that.

At the end of the day though, warts and all, I'd rather be a citizen of the United States more over any other country I know.

B Arnold said...

As a foreigner, a lot of these opinions and the notion of US exceptionalism just makes me snigger. In my experience, the problem with many Americans is they are jaw-droppingly insular, obsessed with themselves, and just have no experience or informed education about anywhere else. They live in a sort of delusional cocoon in which Hollywood is seen as reality and which they are quite comfortable to stay within because it feeds them all kinds of narcissistically pleasant, grandiose notions about themselves. Take sport for example: your most popular games like baseball and American Football are only played within the the US yet you give them names like 'the world series' and barely show an interest in other sports which are popular in a wide span of countries throughout the world and consequently involve a high degree of international competition, even world cups. This helps maintain the illusion you are the best at all sports. After all a US team has won the 'World Series' every time. Well done you, as Eddie Izzard once said! Only recently have you started to take an interest in football (soccer) which the rest of the world loves and even then there are many Americans who seem irrationally hostile to it inventing all kinds of nonsensical criticism about it, as though it were somehow a great personal threat. It looks like you are afraid to really compete in something the rest of the world does case your delusional bubble about being No 1 at everything is burst and you can't handle that. To my observations, similar cultivated ignorance prevails in many other aspects of US culture with similar results.

Also, in response to Aaaron & Aileen, well personally, there are about 40+ countries I would sooner live in than the USA, (and I've spent a lot of time in many different ones,) which often seems like a kind of hell on Earth to me, even when the more enlightened democrats are in office. But I'm sure that's just my values. You have spectacular and beautiful scenery though, I'll give you that.

libhom said...

I've observed exceptionalism in most mid to large size countries. The problem is that our country has way too much power, which makes it dangerous.

Ken said...

I love your posts. I have lived outside the US, and I have never encountered anyone who feels the need to chant, "We're Number One! We're Number One!" all the time. I really think the idea of American exceptionalism comes from the real fear that, no, we're really not. We have a health care and social welfare system that don't even compare to third world nations, we ridiculte "elites" who are smart, and lionise politicians who are "just folks" but who are really ignorant and provinicial (former governor of Alaska, anyone?).

Maybe we keep chanting the number one mantra because if we say it often enough, and loudly enough, then it will be true.

Yeah, right.

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