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Posted at 11:34 AM ET, 01/25/2011

State of the Union: Competitiveness, the Super Bowl, and Amy Chua

By Alexandra Petri

The economy's up a little. Although chastened by tragedy, we're feeling more civil to each other. Except for that awkwardness with the piano music, the dinner with China was a success. Now, with the State of the Union Address, it's time for all Americans to unite around one thing: how much we hate Amy Chua.

No, I'm sorry, "competitiveness," which is what President Obama says his speech will be about. But it's the same thing, really.

The Tiger Mother Debate has exploded nationwide not simply because it's about parenting (one of our favorite national topics, as indicated by our favorite serial dramas: 16 and Pregnant, Octomom, Kate Plus Eight, and anything that happens to the Palin clan) but because it's about competitive, cross-cultural parenting. We want our kids to compete -- so long as they win. But we want our children to win. And "my-child-is-better-than-your-child-and-it-is-because-I-am-Chinese" is an elephant that we usually try to keep out of the room.

It's not about what we do. It's about who we are. It's personal.

And Amy Chua pokes at the creepingly personal justification for our parenting decisions and our other decisions. "It's okay if you can't play the Little White Donkey," we say. "You are you, and no one can do a better job of being you than you can, except possibly Tom Ripley."

Still, sometimes this special and particular Self that we're doing such a good job of being seems to be, well, sort of a loser.

As a nation, we aren't very good losers -- mostly because we seem congenitally incapable of admitting that we are not still winning. My colleague Ezra Klein quoted a radio address from President Obama last week in which he noted, "Technology has made competition easier and fiercer than ever before. Countries around the world are upping their game and giving their workers and companies every advantage possible. But that shouldn't discourage us. Because I know we can out-compete any nation on Earth." It sounds somewhat, well, silly when you have to express it like this.

And remember the Beijing Olympics? It's not about gold medals! we insisted. It's Total Medal Count! No, wait, it's gold medals. No, wait, it's Michael Phelps! No, wait, the Chinese Gymnastics Team is maybe four years old, and we can't count any of that!

I'm not saying we're bad losers. But if we played Monopoly with China, we'd be the one more likely to get frustrated and throw the board.

So when President Obama speaks to us about competitiveness this evening, I'm not sure what he'll say. "Stop jumping up and down!" he'll suggest. "Pull yourself together! It's just a game!"

For guidance, I turned to the realm of football. "I think we've become wussies," Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said after an Eagles-Vikings football game was canceled due to a blizzard. "We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything," Rendell continued. "If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium. They would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."

This was unwarranted, but the same concerns Rendell randomly brought in when talking about football games violently with the advent of Amy Chua. We are worried about competition. But we might be worried the wrong way. "Are you too competitive?" returns 100,000+ results on Google. "Are you competitive enough?" Barely one-fifth the number.

Amy Chua says that it's because we are terrified that our over-competitive ways are going to warp our children's psyches. That might be part of it. But that also might just be something we say because we don't want to look lazy. "Uh, yes," we say, "we are worried about, uh, the psyches of our kids, which is why instead of sitting at a piano taping donkey-related sheet music into a plastic sleeve while someone bites us on the arm, we are watching Criminal Minds reruns and providing vague verbal encouragement."

But that's not it, either. That parenting attitude is hardly characteristic -- not, at least, of the people who have been hooting and hollering and carrying on about the Chua article. It's not that we aren't trying. We are trying! We thought that was what mattered -- that you tried.

Is this not enough? Must we sit there getting tooth-shaped divots in our pianos? Must we bar all afterschool activities? If so, why do we allow Willow Smith out in public at all?

This, like a faint buzzing noise coming from the refrigerator, is one of those worrisome things that keeps us up at night. Has what it means to be competitive really changed? Is it really an honor just to be nominated? Or are we actually losing, and if so, do we need to do something differently? What does American competitiveness really mean?

America is about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- not the Pursuit of Excellence. We used to think the two were synonymous. But maybe we were wrong, we tell ourselves. If what makes us happy is to sit around eating tubs of Crisco, watching Jay Leno, and crying, then that's what the Founders would want us to do. Sure, China's economy is huge, but forget China! They can play "Little White Donkey" all they want. We will innovate our way out of this! We have our freedom!

And in a way, that's the whole point. In fact, the most reassuring thing about Amy Chua is that she isn't a Chinese mother. She's an American mother. Her family chose to come to a country where human rights are protected and individuals are given, by and large, the ability to determine their own fates. And that's our country all over. If you can't beat them, create a free society where they have the opportunity to succeed, and invite them to join you!

It's like the Super Bowl. It's easier to insist that your team is the best if you actually win. And Chua might not be so terrible to have on our team.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 25, 2011; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Congress, Epic Failures, Petri, Senate  | Tags:  America, Barack Obama, football, state of the union, tiger mothers  
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Next: The State of the Union Drinking Game


Amy Chua (or her publicist) is a brilliant marketer. Her content is irrelevant. Amy managed to whip the masses into a frenzy with a single article and spin her way into a best selling book (and probably a screenplay).

Posted by: kirsten7 | January 25, 2011 6:57 PM | Report abuse

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