Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Open "Letter" to Colin Cowherd on American Exceptionalism

There Colin Cowherd goes again. Once again the popular host of The Herd heard on ESPN Radio is claiming that the number of high achieving Americans starring in American sports prove that Yanks are more individualistic and more achievement oriented than our friends to the North, the cooperative safety net nation of Canada.

OK I admit it. This nerd likes sports. Like many of my fellow Yanks I grew up on a steady diet of your standard American sports baseball, the misnamed football (handball or catch ball would be a more accurate description for this sport), and basketball. In my youth I closely followed baseball and worshiped Sandy Koufax. In my teens I came to love football and, like many other adopted Dallasites and Texans, worshiped and suffered at the temple of the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Texas Longhorns. Me as microcosm. Recently I have developed a love of real football, the football played largely with the feet, and rugby, both on the world cup level. Me as anomaly in American context.

Because I like sports I sometimes listen to sports radio, well specifically the limited choices for sports radio we have here in the United States, Fox and ESPN. One of the things I really like about sports radio is that it is one of the few places in the United States where you can hear actual intellectual debates nationally, intellectual debates that look at sports through the economic, political, cultural, demographic, and statistical prisms that dominate intellectual and academic life, on a regular basis. Sports radio is to the 2000s what PBS's Firing Line and Dick Cavett were to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. My Fox and ESPN listening habits are limited, however. I tend to listen during NCAA March Madness week one and during the football World Cup, one of the few times, along with yet another Tiger Woods scandal (sports celebrity culture), when Fox and ESPN actually stray from talking solely about US football, baseball, and basketball.

So recently I was listening to sports radio to see if anyone was talking about the wonderful women's football world cup final between the US and Japan and they actually were but only for a day. As I was changing channels I came across the ever provocative host of ESPN radio's The Herd, Colin Cowherd, going on about what appears to be one of his treasured obsessions, American exceptionalism, this notion that American is unique and singular among the nations of the world. Fox and ESPN sports hosts have learned, as did A Current Affair, TMZ, and the Hearst press before it, that being provocative can attract, expand, and keep an audience, both critically important in a ratings centred and ratings obsessed US media culture. Anyway, according to Mr. Cowherd the US is more individualistic than either Canada or Europe and this is why there is so much more wealth in the US relative to those other places and it is why the US has the best health care system in the world and why the world's elite doctors want to and usually do practise here. Mr. Cowherd, in a kind of shades of Sarah Palin, seems to regard himself a specialist on Canada and Canadian culture and talks about the differences between the US and the Great White North on his radio show periodically because he once lived in the Pacific Northwest, not too far, in other words, from Canada's British Columbia.

While there may be some truth in Mr. Cowherd's argument there are also a number of problems with his perspective. First problem, history. The intellectual revolution that began with the Renaissance, passed through the Scientific Revolution, and gave birth to the Enlightenment (there were actually many enlightenments) with its individualism, its emphasis on liberty from tyranny, its emphasis on property, its focus on happiness, its secularity, and its fascination with the workings of free market capitalism, impacted all of Northwestern Europe, the UK, and the colonies of the UK, those settler societies of US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Little if any US exceptionalism here.

Second problem, size. Size, geographical and demographic, does sometimes matter. Compared to the nations of Europe, including the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia are huge. Compared to the nations of Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand the US, population wise, is huge. The US has 350 million or so souls compared to the UK's some 60 million, Canada's some 30 million, Australia's some 20 million, and New Zealand's some 4.5 million souls. This difference in population, of course, has economic impacts. Because of its significant size and its favourable climate and extensive raw materials, the US is one of the largest economies in the world. It is size which has made the US one of the dominant military powers in the world since the late nineteenth century. It is size which has made the US one of the largest producers of media product in the world. It is size which has made the US a place where some can get rich. There is some American exceptionalism here but it is not the product of American individualism, as Cowherd would have it, since the US shares its Enlightenment individualism with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it is more a function of geography and population size.

There are, of course, other differences between the US, Western Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Football and to a lesser extent rugby are more important in Western Europe than they are in the US. Rugby and cricket are more important in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand than in the US. Hockey is more important in Canada, which likes to think of itself as the home of hockey, a Canadian exceptionalism reflected on Canadian sports radio and television, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic than in the US. Some of this has to do with the weather.

There may be cultural factors beyond individualism which make the US, Western Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand different from each another. Recently I have been thinking a lot about Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism (1977, Norton), a book which became a topic of intellectual conversation in the US in the late 1970s. I have increasingly come to believe that the major difference between the US and Western Europe, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand has to do with this culture of narcissism. It seems to me that with the triumph of corporations during the Gilded Age, the lionisation of the Gilded Age's robber barons, the triumph of consumer capitalism, the rise of Hollywood and its celebrity culture, the rise of a manipulative advertising and mass marketed advertising that sold sex, the rise of television, and the rise of a celebrity obsessed press trying to supply the demand of the masses for information about the intimate strangers they are obsessed with, a culture of narcissism, has come to dominate US business (greed is good), US politics (politicians as celebrities), and US media culture (celebrity culture) in a way it still doesn't in other parts of the industrial world.

I suppose Mr. Cowherd could object to all the above and argue that what he meant was that Americans are more attached to individualism than Western Europeans, Brits, Canadians, Aussies, and Kiwis. But even this more nuanced argument is problematic. For instance the myths of the American frontier (the West which many Americans have long believed gave birth to American individualism not the Enlightenment) and the Horatio Alger myths are paralleled by Britain's "white man's burden" myth, the Canada's we struggled against a difficult environment myth (think Fraser in the Northwest Territories in "Due South" for a contemporary version of this myth), Australia's individualist frontier battler (think Crocodile Dundee as a contemporary example of this myth), and New Zealand's individualist Kiwi battler myth (see the faux tale of Kiwi battler Colin McKenzie in "Forgotten Silver" for a contemporary version of this myth). Little if any American exceptionalism here.

I want to end this open "letter" by addressing a few pronouncements by Mr. Cowherd that annoy me.

Annoying pronouncement one: The US, claims Mr. Cowherd, is the wealthiest country on earth. Yes, I suppose that is accurate if one looks only at raw numbers. But you can't simply look only at raw numbers since the size of nations varies. You can't compare a New Zealand of limited geographic and demographic size with the much larger US unless, of course, you control for size. When one does control for size an analysis of gross domestic product shows that Singapore and the Scandinavian countries are wealthier than the US.

Annoying pronouncement two: The US claims Mr. Cowherd, has the "best" health care system in the world. Of course, one of the problems with Mr. Cowherd's argument here is that he confuses the descriptive, a description of global health care systems, with the normative, the notion that one health care system is better than another. There have been attempts to rate health care systems empirically by looking at quality. The World Health Organisation rankings (2000), for example, looking at responsiveness, fairness, overall level of health, distribution of health, distribution of finances, ranks France number one, Italy number two, the UK number eighteen, Israel number twenty-eight, Canada number thirty, and the US number thirty-seven right below Costa Rica. According to Forbes (2008) the healthiest countries on earth are Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark, Canada, Austria, the Netherlands, the US, Israel, the Czech Republic, Spain and France. Forbes rates the US the eleventh healthiest in the world despite the fact that the US spends the highest percentage of its GDP on health care.

One can, of course, raise all sorts of questions about this data. How does one determine what quality is? Is there an ideological aspect to our notions of what constitutes quality? What can't be contested, however, is the fact that most of the industrialised nations of the world have universal health care systems, that they have universal health care systems because you get the biggest bang for the buck or euro with them--the more people in the insurance pool the more you can spread the cost--and the universal health care systems they have, and these are mostly private or public/private hybrids, lead to healthier populations, as survey after survey shows, because more people have access to health care in nations with universal health care systems.

Annoying pronouncement three: The US, because of its emphasis on individualism, claims Mr. Cowherd, produces individuals who strive for excellence in a variety of domains of life while European, UK, and Canadian mutual aid societies don't. The cooperative societies of Europe, the UK, and Canada, claims Mr. Cowherd, produce citizens who are more oriented toward cooperation than individualism. As a result Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand produce fewer outstanding sports stars. Mr. Cowherd often points to a lack of Canadians among the elite in the dominant American sports of football, basketball, and baseball as evidence for this claim. The problem with this perspective, of course, is obvious. Canadians, though they have grown more interested in the holy trinity of US sports, football, baseball, and basketball, grow up with a first love for hockey, the Canadian national sport and national religion. And that is why there are lots of Canadians among the National Hockey League's elite athletes. Kiwis grow up with rugby as their first sports love. That is why there are so many New Zealanders among rugby's athlete elites. Cultural variations, in other words, do matter.

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