November 7, 2010

Author Q&A: A winning proposition

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Can you really win peace? And if not, what are you really trying to say?

MEET THE AUTHOR

FRANCESCO DUINA will discuss his book at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Prince Memorial Library, 266 Main St., Cumberland. The event is free. Call 829-2215 for more information.

Those were just some of the questions Francesco Duina began to consider when he first heard government leaders talking about "winning the peace" with military actions in Iraq.

Duina, an associate professor and chair of the sociology department at Bates College in Lewiston, became very interested in the place the idea of winning has in American culture and language.

His questions led him to his new book, "Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession" (Princeton University Press).

Duina was born and lived in Italy until he was 14, when he moved to the United States. He has also lived for periods in Denmark as visiting professor at the International Center for Business and Politics of the Copenhagen Business School. And he says both those experiences had some impact on his views of the American idea of winning.

Duina is also the author of "The Social Construction of Free Trade" (Princeton University Press, 2007) and "Harmonizing Europe" (SUNY Press, 1999). 

Q: Why did you want to write this book?

A: I had been thinking about it for some time, winning. It's so everywhere. It's a lens through which we interpret and see things around us, whether we are playing soccer or running for office or doing something work-related. I thought, "Gosh, is this really what we mean?" When I heard President Bush talk about winning the peace, I thought, "Why do we have to use language like that? And what does it do to those around us?" To me, it means we're after something. 

Q: How much of your views on this come from living in Italy and Denmark for parts of your life?

A: A little bit. When I lived in Denmark (in 2007), I noticed that the Danes have such a different approach to competition, more balanced and tempered, yet they succeed. They have a series of (cultural laws) they follow, with rules like don't think you're so special and don't think you have anything to teach anyone. They don't have the same mentality as us, yet they succeed. What does that mean?

I think it means that we (Americans) are uncertain and want to find our place in the world. We want to know who we are. If we win, we are allowed to be who we are. If we lose, our legitimacy is in doubt. We need confirmation.

Q: Americans are trying to find their place in the world? What makes you think that?

A: It's still a relatively new country, a large and young country made up of different cultural streams, with a strong sense of individualism and a desire to pursue one's privacy and one's own vision of happiness. In older cultures the role is set for you, but here we are still finding it, which creates challenges and opportunities.   

Q: What sort of research did you do for the book?

A: When I spent a year in Denmark, I interviewed people in business, sports, government and education. And I've used a lot of surveys and comparative studies, surveys that ask Americans what they think about competition. And I looked at a lot of books, films and the use of language. It struck me that one of the first lines in the (animated) kids film "Cars" is, "I hate losers." 

Q: What do you make of the trend toward sports coaches being held up as motivators and inspiration for people in business, politics and other fields?

A: I win, therefore I'm right. It goes right to the point. One of the flaws in all this is, we believe if we win at something, then our world view in general is right. I'm right in general if I win at basketball. I win the election to become governor, then I must have the right mindset.

There are two logics we follow without even knowing it. One is that the skills can be transferred -- if I can run a state, I can succeed in business; if I succeed as a coach, I can succeed in business. But it's not that clear.

The other thing is that we believe that if we have right values, we will win. We talk about winning wars because we have the right values, but it doesn't mean anything. You can certainly have the wrong values and certainly win a war. 

Q: Were there any big surprises for you putting together this book?

A: Yes, it's that we are very outcome-oriented until someone very close to us fails to win, then we switch gears and talk about the process instead of the outcome. We tell the person they tried hard, and they're sill a winner in our heart. We ignore the process unless the outcome is unfavorable.

Another is the different way to become a winner. You can lose for a long time and then finally win one big one, like the Red Sox in 2004, and everything is OK. Or you can win all the time, or some of the time, or you can lose the entire time, but with the right spirit. That underdog spirit, the fighting spirit. 

Q: I imagine one could write a whole book about the Red Sox and the idea of winning, right?

A: The language that was used when they won included things like, "This is one for the ages" and "You've done it." There was this idea that they didn't ever have to win again, this was it, the long, long fight and eventual success is often celebrated as if nothing else matters.

But if someone loses the big one, often nothing else matters. When Al Gore lost the election in 2000, even though he had won most of his life and even won a Nobel Prize, he's still a loser. There was also something about the way he lost, because he should have won, because he fumbled it, that makes it worse.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

 

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