A Reminder of the Role of Culture and Identity in Social Change

Note: this post was originally published on 7/4/2014.

Peter Beinart has a great piece in The Atlantic about American culture and soccer.  While responding to an Ann Coulter piece on why soccer is un-American, Beinart takes a quick look at the history of soccer in America and conducts a quick exploration of what the rise in the popularity of soccer in the United States means about changing American culture (spoiler: he argues that it has a lot to do with demographic changes with respect to liberals and Hispanics).  In doing so he provides an excellent reminder of the impact that values, culture, identity, and our interpretation of future social change can have on the trajectory of history.

Here’s an excellent example, a passage where he focuses on when America intentionally parted ways with Europe:

So why didn’t soccer gain a foothold in the U.S. in the decades between the Civil War and World War I, when it was gaining dominance in Europe? Precisely because it was gaining dominance in Europe. The arbiters of taste in late 19th and early 20th century America wanted its national pastimes to be exceptional. Despite the British roots of both baseball (in rounders) and football (in rugby), their promoters worked to cleanse them of foreign associations and market them as American originals. Basketball had the good fortune to have actually been invented in the United States.

Soccer, by contrast, was associated with foreignness in an era when mass immigration was spawning Coulter-like fears that America was losing its special character. “Soccer,” Markovits and Hellerman argue, “was perceived by both native-born Americans and immigrants as a non-American activity at a time in American history when nativism and nationalism emerged to create a distinctly American self-image … if one liked soccer, one was viewed as at least resisting—if not outright rejecting—integration into America.” Old-stock Americans, in other words, were elevating baseball, football, and basketball into symbols of America’s distinct identity. Immigrants realized that embracing those sports offered a way to claim that identity for themselves. Clinging to soccer, by contrast, was a declaration that you would not melt.

In casting his gaze forward, Beinart takes a look at some of the cultural trends that may be supporting this shift in soccer’s popularity in the US: mass Hispanic immigration, how technology allows new immigrants to remain deeply connected to their home countries (and their national sports), and growing numbers of Americans (those under 50) are less likely to feel that the American way of doing things is the best or the right way.

And this, of course, has broader implications in a world where we are contemplating a new geopolitical era potentially without a stable new pattern of politics and conflict. As Beinhart points out, “it’s a healthy response to a world that America is both less able to withdraw from, and less able to dominate, than it was in the past.”

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