Posted on January 30, 2011 - by David
The latest episode of ‘Office Hours,’ a social-science podcast produced by several grad students at the University of Minnesota, features my recent interview with Francesco Duina, chair of the sociology department at Bates College, and author of ‘Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession.’
Since reading Duina’s book, I’ve noticed the language and mindset of competition popping up in some questionable contexts, and thanks to his insightful analysis, I’m less likely to accept without reflection that this winning/losing dynamic always makes sense. But:
For many of us, it is a simple matter of fact that, in our schools, workplaces, businesses, and everywhere else, there are winners and losers. We can either win or lose our war against fat, the peace in Iraq, recognition as best employee of the month, custody of our children, our lover’s heart, and in the words of Newt Gingrich in his recent book, even “the future” (Gingrich 2005). (Duina 182)
It’s particularly interesting that Duina’s brief list of confusing competitions includes the Gingrich book (titled, ‘Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America’), since “winning the future” turned out to be the catchphrase from Obama’s State of the Union Address last week. I counted 10 uses of this phrase or some variation of it, and the heading above the video on the Whitehouse website makes it abundantly clear that this was indeed the official theme of the night.
So what did people have to say about the President’s new slogan? Gingrich obviously agrees that the term fits the topic, and states that “Winning implies a real contest. Winning implies losing is possible.” (Duina would indeed have us recognize the same thing about this kind of language, but Gingrich doesn’t demonstrate how exactly this makes sense, the point for him being, I guess, that America’s victory isn’t a sure thing). Of course he disagrees with Obama entirely about how the future is to be won. Bill O’Reilly opens his article by poking some fun at the phrase, but then ultimately buys into the concept, just disagreeing in pretty much the same fashion as Gingrich about what will make us future-winners. Sarah Palin commented on her Facebook page that the “acronym [wtf] seemed more accurate than much of the content.”
Others challenged the language itself a bit more directly. An AP article called it an “upbeat but amorphous phrase.” NPR’s Ari Shapiro noted that, “for Obama, “Win the Future” has the advantage of being vague. At the end of “recovery summer,” people asked where the recovery was. The future, on the other hand, is always just around the corner.” Still others got closer to the heart of the matter, questioning Obama’s use of this “amorphous phrase” to talk about competition with nations like India and China. Tim Redmond of the San Francisco Bay Guardian asked:
…since when was the future a war, something to be fought with an enemy? To “win” the space race we had to “beat” the Soviets, which we did (ha ha, we got to the moon first). To “win” the future, do we have to beat someone else? The Russians aren’t up for winning much of anything these days, but Obama seems concerned about competing with China; do the Chinese have to “lose” the future for us to “win?”
Art Carden, on his Forbes blog, The Economic Imagination, wrote:
… while a group of White House speechwriters apparently thought that “win the future” would have the same rhetorical resonance as “yes we can,” the Address conveyed an incorrect zero-sum worldview in which what others gain comes at our expense. As economics has shown over and over and over and over again, trade creates wealth. Voluntary exchange is a positive-sum game. If China gets richer, it doesn’t imperil our ability to get richer, too.
You can find similar thoughts at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. The point is, it’s not clear why we Americans “need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” in order to be content. I for one am not particularly upset by the fact that South Korea has better wireless access than we do, though the intonation of Obama’s voice as he tells us this suggests we all should be. It’s also odd that the first half of his speech sets up other nations as opponents, but he goes on to cite major trade agreements we have reached or are working on in Asia as evidence of the progress we’re making. Agreements imply cooperation, not competition, but I guess it’s just harder to get Americans fired up about working together than it is to construct a global economic showdown.
I found the “education race” rhetoric to be especially troubling. “Of course,” Obama said, “the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.” What are our nation’s students supposed be racing towards? Is a student’s desire to go directly to work after high school legitimate, or does this signal that he has lost the race? Obama is determined that “by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” but if we take this statement apart, we see it is a relative goal, contingent upon the proportion of college grads in the nations we imagine ourselves to be competing against not rising enough to keep us from reclaiming the top spot. (To highlight the nebulous quality of this aspiration, I should mention that it could in fact be achieved without any improvement on our part, if the rates of college graduation in these competitor nations were to drop for whatever reason).
And just what kind of education should young Americans be racing to get so that we can “win the future”? Obama emphasized the importance of math and science, and mentions how we’re falling behind in these areas, but of course neither he nor the two men who sat behind him (Biden and Boehner) received this type of education (nor, I would guess, did the majority of those seated in the House chamber that night). What’s implied is that if we can “out-educate” in math and science, our young people will be able to “out-innovate and out-build,” and thus we will “win the future.” Certainly, improving material conditions is a worthwhile aim, but in order to navigate our increasingly important and complex relations with other nations, won’t we need students of history, language, psychology, and culture? Will better wireless coverage and faster trains help us understand the way that people in India see the world? And even more fundamentally, do we have any good reason to think that a stronger economy will erase problems like mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and violence of the type we saw in Tucson a few weeks ago?
This isn’t intended to be a critique of Obama, but rather a reevaluation of the imprecise rhetoric which I’m sure was meant to inspire and uplift us. I think we would all do well to follow Duina’s advice about “conceptual hygiene,” and commit to using the language of winning and losing only where it actually fits. If we can do this, our words and thoughts may begin to better match reality, we might find ourselves able to articulate what it is we actually want, and perhaps we’ll start to feel a bit more at peace with ourselves and those around us. (And that includes India and China)
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