Friday, February 3, 2012

The Exception That Proves the Rule

This is an appropriate time to talk about the great game of football, and to draw the inevitable comparison between this national sport and the long national nightmare known as the presidential election.

But I've never been too concerned with what's appropriate.

So instead, I want to talk about exceptionalism.  This is, briefly, the idea the people, places or things can be exceptional. (Duh.) There's a widespread concept of America as an exceptional country.  Sure, it's pretty cool, but Americans are not, in general, any better than anyone else.  In fact, Americans are anyone else. Aside from the natives, Americans are all directly or indirectly related to people who came here from elsewhere.  (In fact, even the natives came from elsewhere, but it was before diaries, so it doesn't count.)

Same goes for people.  History is often taught as a collection of outstanding deeds by exceptional people. Certainly the actions of some people stand out, but more often than not, these people were just in the right (or wrong) place at the wrong (or right) time.  Charles Darwin only published his discoveries of natural selection because Alfred Russel Wallace was going to beat him to it.  Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone because he made it to the patent office a few hours ahead of Elisha Gray.  Isaac Newton had a lifelong feud with Gottfried Leibniz over which of them had invented calculus.

Take Mitt Romney.  He thinks the whole Occupy Wall Street movement was just about envy.  Everybody envies him because he's amassed such a huge fortune through his own talent and hard work, right?  Of course, the fact that his father was chairman and CEO of American Motors, governor of Michigan and a presidential candidate had nothing to do with it.

It's not like Mitt is an innovator, like Bill Gates, who became the richest person in the world by having his company be the third to adopt a windowing interface, after Apple and Xerox. Or Mark Zuckerberg, who had the good fortune to have his Web site become more popular than the many others that were doing the same things at the time. Of course there is talent and hard work, but there are millions of talented, hard-working people who don't become exceptional.

The point is that we like thinking of people, places and things as exceptional.  We have lotteries so that random people become fantastically wealthy just because they don't understand the odds.  We call eBay buyers "winners" because they're willing to pay more than anyone else for something. And we put strangers on remote islands or drop them into pinball machine-like obstacle courses because that's entertainment.

There's nothing exceptional about these people or their accomplishments. We've spent centuries creating societies in which random individuals can become incredibly lucky or unlucky.  That's just how we like the game.

Anyway, I don't care too much about football.

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