John Starks’ 1993 dunk and New York exceptionalism

John Starks had a memorable dunk against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Playoffs and one writer argues this illustrates the city’s belief in its own exceptionalism:

New York exceptionalism — the belief that, as Joey Litman once wrote at FreeDarko, “everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best” — isn’t just something people here feel; it is literally the name of an e-seminar produced by Columbia University, one where “Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique,” and argues that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place.” (Columbia sits at 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naturally.)

This exceptionalism extends to local sports fandom. There’s long been a sense among New Yorkers that New York’s teams are just supposed to be good because they’re New York’s teams. And when they’re not, which is often, the anger gets as big as the payrolls: “How can a team that makes that much, that spends that much, that charges that much, and that is from New York be that bad?” (The answer is typically “mismanagement.” New York sports teams, especially the one that employed Starks, often have that in spades.)…

Yes, Starks would eventually become an All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, but he was never a Jordan- or Reggie Miller-esque star; he always had to punch up when it mattered. And yes, he was a gunner making six (and eventually seven) figures to jack jumpers and occasionally boil over, but he always seemed to be doing stuff like kissing the Knicks logo at center court or saying “someone would have to tear the No. 3 jersey from his chest before he was traded to another team.” Starks treated New York like the exceptional thing New Yorkers believe it to be, and in so doing gave the forever-bigging-itself-up big city a little-guy underdog to rally behind.

As the article goes on to note, this memorable moment came at the end of Game 2 of a series that the Bulls won by beating the Knicks in the next four games. So, even though New York City can lay claim to being the number one global city, the sports teams can’t exactly make that claim. It takes a scrappy player like John Starks to rally the fans even as the teams themselves fall short. Yet, in the 1994 NBA Finals, Starks was blocked at the buzzer of Game 6 as the Knicks lost and then Starks shot 2-16 in Game 7 as the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets.

It would be interesting to ask residents of the top global cities about whether they consider their city to be the best. Is this a unique property of New York, a city that can back up its claims with a powerful finance sector, lots of celebrity, and a big population? Going back to the e-seminar mentioned above, here is the course description for New York Exceptionalism:

Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique, laying down the essential arguments for what one might call “New York exceptionalism.” His thesis for the e-seminar, indeed for the whole series of e-seminars, is that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place, and in some ways [New York City] is certainly unique in the United States and in many ways [New York City] is unique around the world.” How is it unique? Professor Jackson begins with geography, discussing how New York City is a good port and a natural transportation break, in other words, a place where you switch modes of transport. He describes the founding of the city by the Dutch West India Company and explains how the commercial focus of the company, and of the Dutch in general, made New Amsterdam different from Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. People came to New York to succeed. Finally, Professor Jackson discusses how all these factors (commerce, geography, and religion) produced a greater willingness to accept those who are different, a tolerance for diversity that makes New York exceptional.

It is one thing to say a city is unique – which all cities are –  and another to say it is exceptional.

Defining what makes America exceptional (or not)

The Washington Post writes about a public debates between liberals and conservatives over the idea of “American exceptionalism.” It appears that some conservatives have attacked President Obama for allegedly not believing strongly enough in this idea.

But critical to this discussion is actually delineating exactly what might make America exceptional. Here are the possibilities suggested by this article:

“The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire,” wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject…

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.

It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

These are the sorts of traits that one can commonly hear expressed: American is about liberty and freedom, a high level of religious belief and religiously motivated action (as least compared to other industrialized nations), individualism, a laissez faire approach to markets (and life), and reliance on the ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

A couple of thoughts:

1. These discussions often seem rooted in historical qualities which still have some influence today. But how would people add to this list from a more modern era? Some possible character traits to include: pragmatic, middle-class, consumeristic, materialistic, patriotic, etc.

2. What would others around the world think about this list of traits? Is America really seen as exceptional because of the Constitution? Are the five traits listed by Lipset ones that other countries would desire for themselves? Do other nations like the talk of “American exceptionalism”? Do most nations have their own versions of “national exceptionalism” or is this sort of thinking frowned upon?