If there is anything that Americans can rally around, it is the idea of "winning."
We are, after all, a capitalist culture, fueled by competition and fiercely protective of our status quo as the wealthiest nation on the planet. Consider the recent uproar over Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother -- the prepublication excerpt alone attracting over 1 million reads and 7,500 comments -- which reveals that Americans may be harboring a deep-set fear of other cultures and countries getting ahead, beating our system, "winning," so to say.
It is no surprise then that as President Obama addressed the American people last night in his State of the Union Address, he focused on "Win(ning) the Future," and used this term a total of nine times as a thematic pillar, framing his policy plans and motivating his populace.
Obama referred to a Robert Kennedy quote, which expressed a desirable future as something Americans will have to struggle and fight to attain. Obama's word choice in tagging this effort "winning the future," certainly has its merits, namely galvanizing the American people towards patriotism in a manner most conducive to their psychology and culture.
And while the positive political value of this term is evident, the sociological effects of mobilizing Americans as "winners" -- and consequently, the rest of the world as "losers" -- may be more detrimental than President Obama imagined. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world," Obama cheered us on, painting the growing giants of China and India as our main competitors. For all that this term does to boost a quickly deflating American ego, what are the bigger-picture implications of this divide?
Obama's speech ushers in a year in which we are reaching our known limits of global connectivity. How much faster can we get than Twitter, which enables and organizes real-time discussion regardless of distance or state boundary? How much longer until Facebook moves up two spots to become the most populous 'nation' in the world? (Ironically, likely only if and once China joins in). There is no escaping the fact that Americans can and do engage with the rest of the world in immediate and meaningful discourse, but it is how we conduct ourselves in that exchange, not the exchange alone, that determines if we will be better or worse off for having connected.
Take, for example, education reform, and the topic of the Chinese education system -- favorite of Chua and Obama alike -- that is focused on rote memorization and produces stellar test scores that leave American students in the dust. Our domestic debates rail on, searching for ways to make students to achieve higher standards (read: test scores) while on the other side, as we too often forget, Chinese policymakers are well aware of the advantages of creative thought, and are devising their own amendments to match America's strength. For the sake of calling it a competition, we are missing out on a meaningful learning exchange, a sharing of values, a debate on combining two different ways of achievement to find a hybrid best practice.
Or, consider the crossroads of public health and technology -- a field that continues to innovate wildly out of low-income nations around the world. America's first milestone -- the "Text4Baby" Program that registers expecting and new mothers in SMS-based education exchanges -- has followed in the footsteps of several African nations. In South Africa, Project Masiluleke sent out mass HIV/AIDS text messaging that resulted in a tripling of call volume to a local HIV/AIDS hotline. In Uganda, Text to Change sent HIV/AIDS awareness texts to targeted populations, and led to a 40 percent increase in numbers of people seeking free HIV testing.
Additionally, countries like Kenya have already become hubs of mobile-money innovation -- a technology allowing money management from rural areas, that could transform rural and poverty stricken parts of America. Kenya also gave birth to Ushahidi, an organization revolutionizing real-time data management to achieve successes like coordinating the chaos of post-earthquake Haiti. These innovations are not coming from America, and -- in the same way Chua should learn to accept a child who comes in second place sometimes -- Americans should be at peace in learning from, not resisting, the admirable progress of another nation.
My aversion to the "win the future" rhetoric is that under this spell, we see less value in learning openly with others and more value in protecting our value added. We forget that behind nation-state boundaries we are all people with very similar needs and desires. We risk not innovating when we restrict the application of our innovation to benefit only ourselves. "Winning the future" might just be losing the point, if it results in our diminished ability to connect with other people -- because no matter how digitized the world becomes, interpersonal relationships will always matter.
If another country loses, we lose as well. If people are not healthy and economically sound enough to participate in a global economy, the economy will not function as well for everybody. If people are not as educated or lack the opportunities for innovation or do not have sufficient infrastructure, we will continue operating in a less stable and less productive world. The future is not ours to win, but it is ours to share.
I am all for America being a global leader -- and was particularly proud of my President and my country's leadership during the speech's most courageous points: calling for an end to abominable immigration policies, celebrating the end of "don't ask don't tell," and issuing support to the people of Tunisia and Southern Sudan who are fighting for their freedoms as human beings.
But America cannot be a leader until we can navigate and embrace the diversity of our country and of our world, and produce together the kinds of innovations that improve quality of life, without leaving any "losers" behind.
Follow Kate Otto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kateotto