Your home for intelligent conversation on the web
The Chamber of Politics U.S. Politics On Soccer, Contingency, and Presidential Power
THINQon is a platform for a more intelligent web. It aims to replace the ruling paradigm of the web – that of sharing and gathering information – with a sharing and achieving of understanding. Instead of the Q&A model it offers an experience. A platform for discovery of ideas, people, and yourself.     Continue >
On Soccer, Contingency, and Presidential Power
By any objective measure, it would seem that Barack Obama's first year and a half in office has been among the most effective in history. When he signs the financial reform bill into law he can add that to a roster that already includes last year's enormous fiscal stimulus package, student loan reform, and America's first comprehensive healthcare overhaul. Given this list, which omits countless non-legislative changes he has made as chief executive, it is hardly surprising that conservatives should be angry. After all, he is being effective at getting things done that they don't want. What is surprising, though, is why independents and liberals would be turning against him, as some are clearly doing.

As I pondered this puzzle over the last weeks the answer became clear—and no, it didn't have to do with the gusher at the bottom of the gulf, or at least not exclusively. The answer, I realized, was that Americans have a problem with soccer.

During the week after their team was eliminated from the World Cup, US National Soccer Team coach Bob Bradley made the media rounds with star midfielder Landon Donovan, whose brilliant beyond-last minute goal against Algeria kept the US in the World Cup into the round of 16. They opened the New York Stock Exchange and ended the same day exchanging quips with Jon Stewart on his Daily Show. They and the rest of the team enjoyed some well-deserved lionizing… at the same time that Bob Bradley was waiting to hear if he would keep his job. It seems that Americans can't quite figure out if the US's final result at the Cup this year is something to scream in joy or in anger about. Yes, the team made to the knock-out rounds, and thus hammered home the idea that they're one of the 16 best teams in the world; but they also were the only group leader to be ignominiously, well, knocked out, and by the same African country one fifteenth our size that did it last time, I might add. They got a round further than the 2006 team, but not quite as far as the 2002 team. We're celebrating them like heroes, but also coming to grips with the fact that they just didn't accomplish as much as we would have liked.

So, on the one hand we have a president who has done as much or more than any other in history has done in a similar amount of time, and we're either really angry or downright disappointed with him; and on the other hand we have a soccer team that has not managed to accomplish what we hoped for, but that we're really proud of. How do we make sense of this?

I submit that the confused American response to our president and our soccer team stems from the difficulties we have in dealing with contingency. Contingency connotes something a bit more specific than mere "chance." If something happens by chance, that suggests that it just as easily could have happened in another way. "Contingency" thus entails chance insofar as it is opposed to "necessity"; but "contingency" is also opposed to freedom, because something that's contingent depends on something else to decide its fate. This latter meaning is the origin of Americans' problems with contingency.

When questioned about how much control they have over their own destinies, Americans are more likely than any other people in world to say that they have a lot. This confidence in the say we have in how our lives unroll explains a lot: it explains the 19% of Americans who improbably believe they will one day be part of the top 1% of earners (and hence quite astutely oppose tax hikes for the rich now in defense of their future wealth); it explains the wide-spread resistance to the welfare state and other attempts by government to coddle, protect, or otherwise control an individual's destiny. This belief has a lot of positive side effects, I hasten to add. As a part-time European, I am pretty certain that the widely-spread anecdotal evidence as to how much easier it is to get an initiative up and going in the US as opposed to in Europe has some truth to it. The never-ending birth throws of the EU seem to buttress the impression of sclerotic governmental structures too addicted to thinking every last detail through to ever actually get anything done.

On the downside, though, Americans' belief in personal freedom and control over our destinies means that we may often have wildly unrealistic assumptions about our power to alter the world around us. This is where our intolerance for contingency comes in; which also explains why we are so confused by soccer and so angry at the president.

Just look at the way we tried to package the successes and failures of the American side: they persevered in the face of adversity; they prevailed despite being robbed (twice!) by incompetent referees; they came back from behind through their sheer grit to live the American dream, to achieve a Hollywood ending… (these last two were metaphors the television announcers really threw around). But, of course, there's nothing particularly American about the way the US tied, won, and eventually lost the four games it played. It was soccer, pure and simple. One of the reasons soccer is so exciting, so agonizing, so infuriating, and so unbelievably popular pretty much everywhere else in the world other than in the US, is because, unlike so many of the sports beloved of Americans, soccer makes no pretense about defeating contingency. We are fond in American football of saying that anything can happen on any given Sunday, but that lip service to contingency pales in comparison to a sport in which it is so difficult to score that many games end up as 0-0 ties to be decided by penalty shoot-outs, where millimeters or microseconds can decide whether a team goes on in glory or home in despair. Americans reveled, and rightly so, in the Donovan's "miraculous" goal against Algeria after regulation time, but if I performed a miracle for every goal in added time I've seen I wouldn't need the Pope to make me a saint. Finally, the handful of obviously mishandled calls in this age of constant video surveillance and playback will inevitably lead to some enhanced goal-line coverage, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter conceded; but this does not change the default position of the soccer establishment that human judgment, and hence human error, are part of the game. What Americans, therefore, find intolerable about soccer is perhaps what the rest of the world appreciates most about it: that it is capricious, unfair, and devilishly difficult to control, in other words, that it mimics real life.

If we're confused about the beautiful game, take a look at the mixed messages we send the "leader of the free world" (an amazing epithet, if you think about it). While conservatives lambast his "socialist" tendencies, and wring their hands about his "death panels" and how he's taken their country away from them, liberals and independents are shaking their heads at his hesitancy, his tranquility, his lack of leadership, his unwillingness to wield authority. The sources of this angst: an economy ripped apart by his predecessors' obsession with deregulation; foreign policy quagmires incurred by his predecessors' obsession with preemptive power; and now an apparently unstoppable oil slick caused by, well, see the first cause above. Americans, in other words, don't just want an effective, pragmatic problem solver as a president. That's not enough. What we want is to be safe in our fantasy that we, through our leaders, have the power to determine our own fates; that our wellbeing does not depend on the adequate functioning of a blowout preventer five thousand feet below the gulf's surface; or that victory is assured on the fleet foot of a midfielder striking a stray ball forty seconds after the official end of regulation play. 

But we’re not safe. Ask any soccer fan. Ask fast, though. The next game is about to begin.
@ Mr. Egginton

"What we want is to be safe in our fantasy that we, through our leaders, have the power to determine our own fates; that our wellbeing does not depend on the adequate functioning of a blowout preventer five thousand feet below the gulf's surface; or that victory is assured on the fleet foot of a midfielder striking a stray ball forty seconds after the official end of regulation play."

Ah, good old American optimism. Righteousness will triumph, correct? All we need is an invincible man of action to lead us, and all the quibbling details and potential disasters will be avoided, averted, or possibly shot with a .38 Special.

I agree with this, and overall your analysis of Americans' belief that we should not be (or are not) at the mercy of random uncontrollable events. Being unfairly treated by the universe is for the dinosaurs (birds are dinosaurs, making this an oblique pun).

Perhaps I am ignoring the subtleties of some of your tongue-in-cheek analysis, but I think you are making an unwarranted assumption...

"By any objective measure, it would seem that Barack Obama's first year and a half in office has been among the most effective in history. When he signs the financial reform bill into law he can add that to a roster that already includes last year's enormous fiscal stimulus package, student loan reform, and America's first comprehensive healthcare overhaul."

The jury is still out on all of these measures, particularly as most of the more important healthcare measures haven't even come into effect yet, and the stimulus is not completely spent nor has it lived up to any of the promises given by the administration regarding employment rates. Also, so far as the stimulus goes, if it averted a disaster (the new administration line), it's nearly impossible to prove that negative... so the jury will likely remain out. That is the only "objective" way of looking at it. It's been a very expensive year and a half, objectively, but I'm not sure of the correlation with effectiveness there.

This is coming from someone who voted for the man, and basically agrees with these measures.

As far as the non-legislative activities... we've ramped up America's longest war, which has degenerated a bit, and Mr. Karzai is bad-mouthing us in public; Guantanamo is still open; the DoJ is filing a massively unpopular lawsuit against Arizona; the pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize was a total fiasco... I just don't know what to point to in terms of accomplishments.

I'm just wondering whether the Republicans will get the House of Representatives this fall. It seems entirely possible at this point.

"As a part-time European, I am pretty certain that the widely-spread anecdotal evidence as to how much easier it is to get an initiative up and going in the US as opposed to in Europe has some truth to it. The never-ending birth throws [Pet peeve edit: It's "throes," sir.] of the EU seem to buttress the impression of sclerotic governmental structures too addicted to thinking every last detail through to ever actually get anything done.

I agree about this, particularly with the rather spectacular unraveling of the Eurozone of late. It was predicted by more than one economist (Krugman of the Times being perhaps the foremost) and really does serve to illustrate some of the problems with an overreaching central administration. I think that the optimism and skeptical attitude directed at (some forms of) government control have been a strength of the U.S. system.

Overall, though, I think the incredible economic and political success of the U.S. has much to do with some "contingencies" that we refuse to acknowledge.

"What Americans, therefore, find intolerable about soccer is perhaps what the rest of the world appreciates most about it: that it is capricious, unfair, and devilishly difficult to control, in other words, that it mimics real life."


This is exactly what I have been saying throughout the World Cup to non-soccer fans. The diving and preening: trying to influence the authorities through a little bit of theater; the undeserved triumphs and defeats; the blatant cheating, only discovered after the fact, that cannot affect the outcome; the long periods of seeming chaos and inactivity that spontaneously erupt into a few seconds of pure art...

It is life written on turf.

And so far as Ghana goes... it's officially a rivalry. To be continued in Brazil...

In response to Andrew Esch
thanks, Andrew. and yes, i also agree in general on the political points....
I find your point about Americans difficulty in dealing with contingency simply brilliant!
Americans have a strong belief in the: "Make it happen," which is a big part of the entrepreneurs spirit in the US. A belief in a leader which can make things happen from thin air, (a delusion which has both positive and negative aspects), and much more hero(s) oriented than team oriented. It is though a very fetching delusion which we want to believe in.
On the other hand we should remember how Obama got elected. Obama was practically a nobody who manipulated people's belief in his possibility to bring "change." To use the soccer metaphor, if someone comes to you and tells you "If you give me $1m dollars (or your vote) I'll win the world cup," and then after you give it to him he comes in at number 16 people might understandably be annoyed, even if it was ludicrous to think he could win the championship. If someone says that all he needs to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis is an open dialogue with them, well then you can see why people may be annoyed even if the very idea that a simple, nice, dialogue would lead anywhere was preposterous to begin with. This is how he got elected.

Obama got elected by promising how the Democrats and Republicans will work together. Now to come and say, well the Republicans are not letting him do his work is actually simply silly, because it was completely clear beforehand that this will happen and that his promises were vacant and manipulative promises. He promised people his ability to "Make it happen."

To speak for Obama though, there is a strange irony here. Promising bi-partisanship comes from understanding contingency and that he can't do it alone. It was simply the wrong groups he aligned himself with.
Something else I'll say for him is that together with contingency he brings a certain patience to the administration which Americans are not used to and find it hard to figure out. His recent failure with the energy bill though, makes you wonder how effective it will be.


As for your example with people not knowing how to react to the final team placements in the world cup, I would say that though winning is the most important thing today how you lost is also important. People can accept loss as long as they feel you gave it your all. With soccer they are not sure if the US gave it its all. They accept "The better team won" as long as they are sure who the better team is.
Join the Community
Full Name:
Your Email:
New Password:
I Am:
By registering at THINQon.com, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.
Discussion info
Latest Post: July 27, 2010 at 1:02 AM
Number of posts: 4
Spans 13 days

  
Searching
No results found.