19 October 2009

Heavy Lifting

So, before you start to wonder if you are on the wrong blog, let me say up front that this is going to be a bit of a change of pace. While you wouldn't know it from most of these posts, I am actually a student here, and at some point, that secret was bound to get out. Without getting into the politics of the issue (if that is even possible), I was reading a book about why the United States has never developed a strong socialist party. (I know there are probably some who are jumping around their living rooms because they believe this statement is no longer true given the current political climate, but remember that this book is at least five years old AND that we are not getting into the politics of the subject. The book does not make a value judgement about socialism, it simply suggests that it is unique that the US has virtually no socialist political influence--something I didn't even realize on that scale.)

I came across this quote in the book (It Didn't Happen Here by Seymour Martin Lipset, if you are interested):

"He pointed to the "over-valuation of success" inherent in America's pure bourgeois achievement-oriented culture, which made "who won" the only question of interest in sports and economic and political life. As he emphasized: "The American prays before the god of Success, he strives to lead a life acceptable to his god...[Since] all individuals are bent on success, each must aim to come ahead of the rest."

This really resonated with me because there have been a few moments here when I have been aware of just how different American culture is, and ironically, those moments have often been centered around sports or competition. (I think back to basketball, handball, and rugby practices) I realize that this explains the eternal struggle that I have been experiencing. In many ways, that is what can be the most disorienting thing about this experience; I am in a country where they speak the same language, have the same fast food restaurants, listen to the same music (even 50 cent, "Just a lil bit"...talk about shattering your image of the city), and...ok, I can't lie to you--they don't dress the same. But amongst all of those similarities, there are these moments when I have realized that I AM FOREIGN.

And, I have to admit that as I read this book (by far the easiest thing I have read so far, because it actually runs parallel to my assumptions and values instead of assaulting them at every turn and reminding me that I have no context with which to understand what I am reading) that I have been reminded and extremely proud of the things that make America unique. I don't feel the need to apologize for the individualism, egalitarianism, populism, and suspicion of big government that make our country unique and at odds with the rest of the world on so many levels.

Yes. The American success story (what we would call the American dream) is a huge part of our national identity, pursuit, and values. And it is a great thing! It is probably what causes us to value timeliness, efficiency, service and a multitude of other virtues and ideals that are often neglected here. AND, I have realized that the American pursuit of success is certainly ingrained in me as I strain against and feel stiffled by the celebration of athletic mediocrity.

But at the same time, I think it is important to confront the complexity of what makes us different.
I certainly can't disagree with any part of the assessment that we are driven by success. And compromising in this area would certainly compromise many of the great things about American society. But I think it is important to be aware of the ways in which our success-consumption has loomed large and distorted our view of life as it crowds out other important values. The image of bowing to the Success-god was a bit too eery for me as I started to think of all the subtle ways we do that culturally. I suppose what I am suggesting is that we must be vigilant personally and collectively that our greatest strength does not become our greatest weakness.


  1. Lindsay, you are a talented and thought-provoking writer. I thoroughly enjoy reading them, and I think a few of my students would enjoy responding. Would you mind if they do?

  2. Absolutely, not! And, I can try to respond/create a dialogue as well...I would be really interested to hear their thoughts!