roland martin on CNN

Story highlights

Martin: Critics taking Obama's "lazy" comment out of context

In many areas, Americans are in fact lazy, says Martin

68% of U.S. 8th graders can't read at grade level, he says

Some Americans coddle their children in school and sports, he says

Editor’s Note: Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House.” He is a commentator for TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch with Roland Martin.”

CNN  — 

For all of our talk of Americans being straight shooters who don’t like to mince words and have the freedom of speech to say exactly what’s on our minds, we sure punk out when it comes to elected officials speaking the truth.

Case in point: President Barack Obama describing American corporations as being “lazy” in competing globally.

Now, if you hear that word by itself, you would think, “Man, that’s horrible our president said such a thing.” But here is EXACTLY what he said during a conversation with Boeing’s CEO as they discussed American businesses selling more products overseas, and attracting foreign investment to the U.S.:

“You know, we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades. We’ve kind of taken for granted, well, people will want to come here, and we aren’t out there hungry selling America, and trying to attract new businesses into America.”

That’s it. Was he talking about workers turning out cars in Detroit? Nope. Was President Obama dissing manufacturing workers in North Carolina? Not at all. He was talking about Americans being far more aggressive in trying to sell our wares abroad.

That’s it. Simple. Easy. And on point.

Then all of a sudden, Texas Gov. Rick Perry used the word in an ad, not even bothering with the context. Fox anchor Martha MacCallum said Obama was “scolding” Americans. Sean Hannity, never one to let facts get in the way of a good lie, said Obama “attacked” Americans. And the king of taking anything out of context, Rush Limbaugh, said the president “insults the people who make this country work.”

Seriously, please pass the cup so these folks can take a drug test because they are hallucinating.

This is the problem with the stubborn belief in American exceptionalism: It assumes that no matter what the issue, Americans are the best in the world and can’t be topped or beaten.

There is another word for this: arrogance.

Yes, it’s true. Americans can be absolutely arrogant when it comes to competing with the rest of the world.

A few months ago I read a story where American college students were dismayed that they had to apply for jobs overseas. Well, if that’s where multinational corporations are hiring, then we might have to learn to get a passport, hop on the plane, and learn how to Skype in order to talk to family members. Are we so arrogant to think the rest of the world is desperate to come here and we may not have to go to other countries?

We can’t continue to act like our stuff doesn’t stink. There are many areas where Americans are lazy, and in the words of President George W. Bush, we must end “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Maybe this comes from our view of sports. It used to be on the national sporting stage, the attitude of America in gymnastics, boxing, track and field, basketball and numerous other sports was that we could just wake up, walk into a stadium with the American flag on our chest, and everyone else would faint, allowing us to win.

Well, that ain’t gonna cut it. And when we lose, Americans totally freak out, wondering how we got beat. Easy. H-A-R-D W-O-R-K.

We need a dose of reality at times to remind us that to to be the best, we must have the right work ethic.

According to the Broad Education Foundation:

– 68% of American eighth graders can’t read at grade level and won’t catch up

– American students rank 21st in science compared to students in 30 industrialized countries
– America’s top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries

In 2000, the last time The World Health Organization ranked the top health systems in the world, the U.S. was 37th, behind France (first); Oman (eighth); and Chile (33rd).

Maybe part of the problem is the American culture rewards weakness. If America wants to be the absolute best, we must stop telling our children that they are so exceptional when they are not. If your kid can’t shoot, pass, dribble or rebound, guess what? They are terrible at basketball and should find a new sport. If it’s just about the enjoyment, fine. But if it’s about winning, they can’t cut it.

I was talking to a CNN colleague whose mother is a teacher and she said that her mom can’t grade papers in red ink anymore because that is considered too aggressive. Really? Has America become so weak that we can’t even handle a school paper graded in red?

I’m sick of us giving awards at schools just because we don’t want a kid to feel bad. Guess what? Suck it up. First, second and third is fine with me. You finished eighth? Tough. No ribbon for you. No apologies.

Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini had to apologize because folks complained about them yelling and shouting at their players on the sidelines. Thank God Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne are dead. We would run them out of town!

In Walter Isaacson’s excellent book, “Steve Jobs,” the co-founder of Apple is blasted by some for his treatment of workers and competitors. Was some of Jobs’ stuff over the top? Sure. But what was he trying to do? He was trying to create a world-class company that could withstand the test of time and wasn’t filled with a bunch of B players. He wanted excellence in every spot, and would rather fire a B or C player on the spot than accept shoddy work.

Hey, I’m down with the philosophy of Jobs. Those are the kind of companies I’ve worked for in the past, and I was taught that if you want to win at something, you better be the best. Heck, even Jobs wasn’t above criticizing President Obama, saying that one of the reasons he was on his way to a one-term presidency was because, “He’s having trouble leading because he’s reluctant to offend people or piss them off.”

“Yes, that’s not a problem I ever had,” Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying.

Now that’s some real talk.

I’ll guarantee you this: Weak and lazy corporate bosses allow weak and lazy employees to stick around. And weak and lazy employees tend to turn out a weak and sorry product that nobody wants. And weak and lazy people accept mediocrity with ease.

America, it’s time to suck it up. If we love the harsh and in-your-face American Idol/X Factor judging of Simon Cowell, then we should accept it in the real world. This nation needs a swift kick in the butt, and there is nothing wrong when President Obama says it. If House Speaker John Boehner said the same, I would be hollering, “Amen!”

If America wants to maintain it’s position as a great nation, then we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and out-think, out-learn, out-hustle and out-work everyone.

So Gov. Perry, instead of spending time taking President Obama out of context in an ad, you need to work harder in debates. Herman Cain, you don’t like the president using the word lazy? Then bone up on foreign affairs. Republicans and Democrats unhappy with President Obama challenging our corporate leaders, stop kicking the can down the road on the tough budget stuff and make a principled, not partisan, call.

We have been better and can be better. So let’s do better. Today.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.