The World Cup & American Idealism

If you read the comments here at TAC, no doubt you’ve seen the accusation that America suffers from a Calvinist dualism that sinisterly causes all of American conservativism’s woes like it was the Catholic Church in a Dan Brown novel. While these claims are exaggerated, there’s a bit of truth in the idea that when compared to Europe, we’re a little more dualistic.

I think American’s reactions to the World Cup show this more than not. Whenever the World Cup comes around, Americans who don’t like soccer freely give their opinions as to why they are not interested in the sport that consumes the rest of the world. There’s usually two reasons. The first is that soccer is about as entertaining as watching paint dry. While this is perfectly defensible, it’s more a matter of taste than anything else (as one could say the same thing as basketball-as my wife quite often does when I’m watching games before the last 5 minutes that don’t involve Kobe Bryant getting mad. She likes those games.).

The other reason often given is soccer’s fondness for draws. This at the National Catholic Register is a good sample.

One often hears the question, “Why isn’t soccer more popular in the US?”  Of course there are many reasons.  Ninety minutes of running around only to end up nil nil is not very satisfying.  I mean real sports shouldn’t end in a tie and they certainly shouldn’t end 0-0.

When my boys were little and started out playing little league, the rules said not to keep score.  Of course, even though they weren’t supposed to, the kids knew who really won the game.  Even these little ones understand that sports are supposed to have winners.

Ties and draws confuse Americans. When we have a draw, we have to decide which team really won in getting the draw.

All of our most popular sports have moved away from having ties. Baseball goes to extra innings, Basketball goes into overtime. Football can end in a tie after another full period, but it happens so rarely nowadays that Donovan McNabb didn’t even know it was possible. The last holdout, hockey, has now moved to shootouts to break the tie. Indeed, we Americans will do anything, even really stupid things to avoid the tie. Don’t believe me? In a few weeks, we’ll have the MLB All-Star game, where “This time, it counts.” If you need 5 minutes or more to exercise your hatred of Bud Selig, feel free to resume reading the post later.

Pure and simple, Americans want to see winners and losers; good guys and bad guys. We are less comfortable with a middle grey area like a draw than our European counterparts. This is more indicative of a tendency towards dualism than not.

I’m sure that Morning Minion is right in that this due partly to Calvinism (though I have no idea if it’s only Calvinist). Morning Minion then goes on to assume this tendency towards dualism is always a negative. I’m not sold on that point.

Surely dualism can be evil if it leads to delusions about one’s own side. If one puts the USA as the “good” side and its enemies as the “evil” side one is apt to presume America’s actions to be good, making more excusable whatever means the USA deems proper to execute its ends. Whether the atom bomb, torture, or whatever, the USA is good and so its means must be good. The same presumption applies to its ends (i.e. support of Israel or other regimes). This uncritical approach blinds us to our own faults, making repentance and true virtuous living nearly impossible. On the flip side, the approach towards our enemies can dehumanize them, as they become nothing but “the enemy.”

On the other hand, the alternative to this can be just as dangerous, As we see often in Europe, where there is only grey there is just acceptance of the nature of things. That is, while Americans may accept uncritically the sins of its country because it’s country is good, Europeans & secularists are more likely to accept things because there is no good. Scarred by the horrors of the two world wars, Europe has lost any kind of ideal and so do not push themselves towards. Instead they accept themselves and their countries as flawed and do not see anything that can be done about it. There is no hope.

My feeling is that both kinds of acceptance are bad, but America’s tendency towards “dualism” is better because it contains a bit of idealism in a good way. You can’t have a dualism without an idealism, I think it is the idealism that is more natural to Americans than our dualism; dualism simply results from our ideals.

This idealism means that when we do have the ability to see our faults, these faults outrage us. I have a feeling healthcare reform became unpopular in large part because we were disgusted by the lobbying and deal-making that violates our ideals of fair debate. At least having the ideal of being good can often compel us to try better to live up to those ideals. Going back to sports, which games are better? The ones where the teams are fighting to hold a draw or where a team is going for the win

Even though America’s idealism can lead to dualism, I think it is better than Europe’s lack thereof. After all, draws are boring. It’s much better to have a winner.

Especially if they wear black and gold.

41 Responses to The World Cup & American Idealism

  • Heh, I’ve never thought about the American approach to sports through the lens of dualism, but you might be on to something there!

    But honestly, I can’t get terribly excited over these “soccer wars”. It’s mainly because I don’t really like sports. Of course, what kind of multilateralist would I be if I didn’t support the World Cup (!), and I do, but I just can’t get too excited about it. I certainly appreciate the game of soccer, and think it is incredibly skilful. I think the low scoring adds to the tension and excitement. I’ve always thought that the American distaste came from its culture of instant gratification, and the fact that soccer stubbornly refuses to adapt to the whims of American TV advertizers.

    But it’s not really a big deal. I can also appreciate why some people like baseball, even though it bores me to tears. I have a far less appreciation for American football and basketball, which I see as simply too “noisy” and chaotic.

  • “Scarred by the horrors of the two world wars, Europe has lost any kind of ideal and so do not push themselves towards. Instead they accept themselves and their countries as flawed and do not see anything that can be done about it. There is no hope.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this, but it sounds like a very “conservative” position to me – a rejection of modernity’s constant drive for betterment alongside a pessimism about human potential.

  • Jay Anderson says:

    [SNORE]

    Is it over yet? Must not be, because I can still hear all that buzzing and droning in the background, interrupted by the occasional cheer whenever someone manages to kick the ball wide of the net.

    [ROLLS BACK OVER]
    ;-)

    Now we need to get back to some REAL sports news like how much money LeBron James is going to make by testing the free agent market and how much money the Texas Longhorns will make now that they’ve tested the free agent market.

  • I’m not sure I agree with this, but it sounds like a very “conservative” position to me – a rejection of modernity’s constant drive for betterment alongside a pessimism about human potential.

    I’m not sure that necessarily a conservative position. For example, the Founding Fathers set up the system of checks & balances so “ambition can check ambition,” the idea being that men were not going to become virtuous and so we could attempt to build institutions to use men’s vices against each other in the hope that something resembling virtue would come out. I think both conservatives & liberals have a problem with the idea of men pursuing virtue, though they differ one where should turn then (conservatives turn to traditions, small communities at least in theory while liberals turn to larger institutions like the UN).

    I’ve always thought that the American distaste came from its culture of instant gratification, and the fact that soccer stubbornly refuses to adapt to the whims of American TV advertizers.

    Yeah, but I’m not sure soccer is that much less of an instant gratifier than say baseball (especially small ball) or hockey. It’s an interesting question though.

    The advertising idea is interesting, as I think that largely accounts for why motor racing is relegated to a regional sport.

    Anyway, I like sports as a prism to view the culture b/c whereas in politics we have our guard up, in sports our guards are down.

  • RL says:

    I’ve always thought that the American distaste came from its culture of instant gratification, and the fact that soccer stubbornly refuses to adapt to the whims of American TV advertizers.

    Not denying that modern America (or even much of the West) is hooked on the crack of instant gratification, but I’m not so sure the distaste for soccer follows from it.

    The money from TV advertising is as corrupting as the good it brings. However, I don’t think that’s a uniquely American problem either. This story has been big for a few days.

    http://g.sports.yahoo.com/soccer/world-cup/blog/dirty-tackle/post/Two-Dutch-mini-dress-models-arrested-after-defyi?urn=sow,248867

  • c matt says:

    Ties in the World Cup only happen in the first round.

    Part is the TV ad money, but I agree with MM that instant gratification has something to do with it. It also has to do with not understanding the game (understanding the rules is not the same as understanding the game).

    It has more to do with American exceptionalism – if we can’t be the world champions at something, then the sport sucks. Best example – when was the last time you heard of the world cup of baseball? Yeah, when we actually compete as a national in our own sport, we lose, hence very little hoopla about it. Makes us feel like the English.

    Add to the list of “paint drying” sports baseball, bowling, and even American football (run for two yards, drop a pass, run for three more, punt…repeat – about 7 seconds of actual movement interrupted by 40 seconds of standing around in a circle). Baseball has to be the worst – if you don’t understand the game. Three up, three down…repeat for 9 innings…and you have what is known as the most excting thing – a no-hitter (how a no hitter can be “exciting” but a nil-nil draw is not because of low scoring, I can’t figure out). And basketball – they should just shorten the game to one period of about 7 minutes, since the last 7 is all that matters.

  • Best example – when was the last time you heard of the world cup of baseball? Yeah, when we actually compete as a national in our own sport, we lose, hence very little hoopla about it.

    We don’t hear about it b/c none of the MLB teams are interested in letting the best players risk injury for it. They don’t care, the best players aren’t there for America, so if they don’t care why should we?

  • Paul Zummo says:

    It has more to do with American exceptionalism – if we can’t be the world champions at something, then the sport sucks.

    You contradicted yourself with your next statement. We lose in the World Cup of Baseball (which is moderately popular), and yet I don’t see baseball losing its popularity because of it. Then again, as Michael says, we’re not necessarily sending all of our best players anyway. Also, could we “suck” (we actually don’t, at least not as much as we used to) at soccer because we’re not that interested in it, and not the other way around. After all, how can you develop a good national team when the fifth best athletes from your country are participating in it – the others all going to the other big four?

  • Dale Price says:

    For me, soccer’s fine, and I admit I am following the World Cup again this time around. Then again, I find curling fascinating, so YMMV. ;)

    My one complaint with soccer is the consistent, exaggerated “flopping” to try to draw fouls (is that the right term?). Some of these guys get tapped and they go down like they took a shotgun blast to the torso. It happens in hockey, too, but you can get penalized for it there. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    I like soccer because you can leave the game on, accomplish many household chores, and exist firmly in the confidence you did not miss anything at all noteworthy.

  • RL says:

    c matt,

    We’re putting a lot of weight on the idea that the low score/tie scenario is truly a reason why Americans don’t like the game. While some may remark about it, I don’t think that’s necessarily it and find the instant gratification angle connection weak at best (again, not denying that as a culture we have a problem there).

    I think the largest part is tradition. Baseball, basketball, and football are essentially American (US) and their populatrity pre-existed our population. Hockey is North American, but not from the US, yet it caught on fairly well in the northern states early on and has a significant tradition to grow from. There’s just a huge hurdle for soccer to overcome to become popular here. It just doesn’t help that it’s rather boring to watch.

    I’m with Dale on curling. Everything about it screams BORING, but somehow it’s very interesting to watch.

  • c matt says:

    Certain Americans don’t like the game for many reasons, I venture most who don’t like it have never played it consistently or at a decent level. Surprisingly, there are many who do. De gustibus, I suppose.

    We can argue until the end of the world which is more boring, but it is unfortunately too typical that many Americans for some reason have to pick on soccer as uniquely boring when, frankly, many sports are extremely boring if you did not grow up with it and don’t fully appreciate the various nuances. (C’mon, basketball and baseball have to constantly remind us that “every game matters” because they know in a 60+ game season every game really doesn’t). You can hardly stay awake during a full regular season game, when the regular season is nothing but a seeding for the playoffs (particularly basketball, where it seems half the teams go on to post-season).

    At least in soccer (in most countries) every game does count, as it is the team with the most points (3 for win, 1 for tie, 0 for loss) at the end of the season who is the winner. Kind of like NASCAR.

    Yes, it is very much a cultural thing, and as we know, Americans are rather notorious for not being very interested in other cultures. Perhaps that is the main reason.

    BTW, many of the best players in the Major league are not, in fact, US citizens. There was a hilarious commercial not too long ago that made just that point.

  • c matt says:

    Anyway, getting back to the main point, I don’t even see how allowing for a tie somehow shows a lack of dualism because there is no winner. There is clearly a winner at the end of the season, as there is at the end of the cup. Europeans separate winners and losers just as much as we do, they just do it differently. In fact, you might have less dualism here because playoffs are essentially a second chance. If you make it to the playoffs, you have just as much opportunity to win it all as the top seeded team, so you really haven’t lost. Even more so in basketball and baseball, where you are playing best of whatever series, so you can lose the first game or two and still eventually move on.

    In the Euro system, the 3 points you didn’t gain at the beginning of the season b/c you tied or lost rather than won can never be made up (ask Real Madrid).

    I just don’t understand where you are getting the idea that allowing for ties to factor in somehow does not show dualism whereas the American system does.

  • c matt says:

    After all, how can you develop a good national team when the fifth best athletes from your country are participating in it – the others all going to the other big four?

    Fair and accurate point. Others go to the big four for good reason – that’s where the money is. College scholarships and pro contracts. Can’t blame them for doing that.

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    Although I think there is a lot of skill in soccer, I do find it a little boring.

    That’s why I played a REAL game, and continue to follow it enthusiastically.

    R U G B Y :lol:

  • Dave Hartline says:

    A rather fascinating topic. Just for the record my favorite sport is college football, but I enjoy all sports, especially nationalistic affairs. I think it is a healthy release and not grounds for over the top triumphalism like some claim. I will watch World Cup Soccer and Olympic hockey far more than I will watch MLS (or any Euro soccer) and NHL for that matter. It seems like there is more passion when the nation state is involved. A rather interesting concept that when one plays for their nation (instead of money) one sees this kind of passion. This is probably why I like college football far more than I do the NFL.

    I think these team events are far more healthy than the indiviudalistic Roman specatacle that evolved from the coliseum. As far as sports being boring, it seems our modern remote control society has told us that soccer and baseball (two of the world’s more ancient sports) are somehow boring.

    However centuries ago, during the infancy of the games that became to be known baseball and soccer, they were embraced because of their excitement. Keep in mind a cricket match can go on for hours and days. Just some of my thoughts on this interesting topic.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Don the Kiwi:

    Two of my sons play Rugby. Both won their college club league titles – different years. The elder is a prop. The younger is fullback or wing and co-captain.

    A ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.

    Excellent game! Enjoy to watch it. Took some time to get the rules.

    I never played. My face looks like it, tho.

    You have the All Blacks. We Yanks have a ways to go.

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    Hi T.Shaw.

    ” A ruffians game played by gentlemen

    That’s maybe how it was 100 years ago in England, but most of the guys I played with and against could hardly claim that title ( gentlemen, that is – mostly ruffians). 45 years on I still carry a few scars – but with pride, of course. ;-)

    Actually, the US is getting better all the time. I’ve watched them over the past few world cups, and they improve with every showing. The Rugby World Cup is being held in NZ next year, around July 2011. It’ll be quite a spectacle I expect.

    Mmmm….propping in the front row is no place for shrinking violets. I used to play open side flanker in my school days, then moved to first five-eight in late teens and early 20′s.

    Them were the days :-)

  • T. Shaw says:

    Yessir Don the Kiwi,

    “Youth is wasted on the young.” Yogi Berra said that.

    Last game this Spring the old maroon (grads), my prop son, played the students, my full back son.

    Mother’s big worry was one would bust the other’s nose or any other moving part.

    Last Fall, the young guy had his nose reworked. Had it fixed, good as new. Years ago, the older guy had his nose laid out on the side of his face, and just pushed in back – blood all over the place, tho. At one tourney a doc was on the side line with a beach chair doing free sewing up work. One of the lads can’t play any longer – fluid on the brain. His cousin is still in there. One tourney – about 30 college and club teams – at Fort Drum had the ambulances running every 15 minutes.

    Once they get it in the blood . . .

    Keep the faith! And, God bless the Kiwis.

  • As little attention as soccer gets in the US, Rugby has to get even less. Heck, I spent half of “Invictus” trying to figure out how rugby was played. Soccer to me has always been known by Americans, even if we didn’t care about it. Rugby is almost nonexistent, though I do know that at the high school and collegiate level it is starting to get attention as informal inter-school competitions pop up.

    Then again, I’ve also seen inter-collegiate competitions in Quidditch, so take what you will from that.

  • inhocsig says:

    What I’ve come to love about European football is that if your a fan of a team there’s almost always some competition your team or at least some of its players is involved in. You’ve got the competition for the league championship if your team is really good. If your team is really bad you have to worry about your team staying out of the bottom three spots or it gets sent down to next lower level for the next season. Also during the season each country holds a competition for all the teams in the different leagues for their national cup. So big clubs end up playing against small town teams and every year there is at least one small club that goes a long way in the tournament. If your team finishes in the top four in its league then you compete in the European Champions League against the best four teams of other nations. If your team finishes in the top seven, then there is the competition for the Europa League Championship. And then maybe some of your star players make the national team and you’ve got international competition.

    So there is lots to live for and enjoy. As opposed to growing up in or around Cleveland.

  • T. Shaw says:

    “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name – He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

    Grantland Rice

  • Big Tex says:

    As an avid soccer fan, I have some quibbles with some statements made thus far. :-)

    Athletes and the big 4 sports… many of these so-called “best” athletes have certain attributes that are beneficial for certain sports (height, 300 lbs., or massive upper body strength) that sort of preclude them from playing the game of soccer at the highest levels. You ever see high school soccer players answer the charge from high school football players that their game is wimpy? It wasn’t pretty, if you were one of the football players. I contend that the athletes in the big 4 sports are really no better athletes than soccer players. The game requires different skills, and thus is like comparing apples, Volvos and paper.

    Re: popularity
    It’s low popularity as compared to other sports is due to many different factors. Low scores, frequent draws, not to mention that the game is relatively new to Americans. Where were we 25 years ago? It’s making more inroads with each new generation, albeit slowly.

    John Cleese adds further commentary (however, he SHOULD know the origins of the word soccer seeing that he’s English):

  • Paul Zummo says:

    Oh, the flopping in basketball drives me crazy, and is one of the many reasons it is my least favorite of the big four sports. But even basketballers don’t act like they’ve been shot in the groin every time another player so much as breathes on them. That to me is one of the more annoying aspects of soccer,

  • Paul Zummo says:

    As for the Cleese rant, that was actually pretty funny. But I would like to see a soccer player, oh, excuse me, footballer lineup behind the line of scrimmage just once and see how “unthinking” an NFL quarterback is. I’m sure Peyton Manning would be amused by the results.

  • Jay Anderson says:

    Big Tex,
    Soccer? Really? And you call yourself a Texan?

    Dude, first you refer to that university down on the Colorado as “UT”, then not giving REK and Lyle the love they deserve, and now … soccer???

    I’m going to have to reassess my, up to now, very high opinion of you.
    ;-)

  • Big Tex says:

    Jay, I am very much a Texan. My cleats are right next to my boots. Moreover, soccer is very much a part of the youth athletics landscape in Dallas. Moreover, the Dallas Cup is one of the premier tournaments in the US, featuring teams from across the nation and the world.

    Sorry about bustin’ your impression of me. I hardly conform to the typical Texan stereotype. Would it shock you even more that I love jazz music? One thing I’ve learned over the years about the interwebs, is that the old adage about books and covers applies even more. :-P

    The US was robbed out of two points today.

  • Jay Anderson says:

    “Would it shock you even more that I love jazz music?”

    Not at all. Texans have always been eclectic about their musical tastes. Bob Wills, himself, loved jazz.

    As for soccer, I’m just giving all my soccer-loving friends a bit of a hard time (especially now that soccer has officially come out of the closet).
    ;-)

    Besides, my kids all play it, and my 6-year-old son is (dare I brag?) a superstar at soccer. I’m just not really all that into the sport, though (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    T. Shaw.

    You may be interested to know that one of our well known All Blacks from the 80′s, 1980 – 86 in fact, was a Mark Shaw, his nickname ‘Cowboy’ Shaw. He was a tall rangy hard hitting loose forward who worked in the Freezing Works (Meat Industry). You being from Texas, I thought the info was appropriate ;-)

    Michael Denton.

    I believe that rugby has a fairly good following up in the US North West – also the Canadians around Vancouver have a fairly respectable team. I have a Welsh born cousin in law( the Welsh are Rugby mad, probably more so than the kiwis) who live in Vanc. and he has had many world trips as assist.manager of the Canadian team. Also, I believe that rugby has a reasonable following in Texas and a couple of the other southern states.

    Jay Anderson.

    Oh, by the way, Gaelic Football rules

    You would be a fan then of AFL – Australian Football , commonly called Aussie Rules. It is a game based on Gaelic Football, but with an oval ball, and is quite a spectacular game. It is very strong in Australia, particularly Victoria, South Australia and Western Austrslia, tho’ the other 3 states have teams in the national comp. There may even be a Kiwi Aussie rules team in the comp in a few years.

    And I think the US were robbed of a couple of points last night too. Bloody refs. ;-)

  • MarkL says:

    No winners or losers in football? cough…penalty…cough…golden goal…cough…really, it is well known that in football there is always ultimately a loser and a winner..one of the most merciless sport at reminding people of that.

  • Jay Anderson says:

    LOL, Big Tex. Way back when, I used to tease a college friend of mine who was a soccer fan by saying that soccer was a sport for “chicks and communists”.

    Don,
    I remember the early days of ESPN, when they used to show Australian rules football all the time during the late-night hours. It was fun to watch.

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