America Isn’t the Greatest Country on Earth… And That’s Just Fine

by Matt B. on January 5, 2014

Our politicians are fond of telling us that America is the greatest country that’s ever existed. And with elections coming up this year, we can expect to hear it even more.

Can we be honest for a second? It’s an obnoxious thing to say. How would you respond to someone at a party who talked this way about himself?

But more than that, it’s confusing. Greatest how? The ambiguity gives fodder to both sides of the political spectrum.

To progressives, it’s a challenge, an exhortation to fulfill our commitments to our children, etc. (This is the “We’re not the greatest, but we could be” sentiment we see throughout Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom.’)

To conservatives, it’s often a license for passivity. Yes, our education system is wildly dysfunctional and confused, and our health care system isn’t much of a system at all. But still, somehow, underneath it all, we remain number one.

And that’s the key point: notions about American greatness aren’t rooted in evidence.

You see this when Americans get interviewed about the topic. Why is America number one? “We have freedoms that they don’t have.” Well, lots of Europe seems awfully free as well. “You can start a business really easily.” Yes, but because businesses often go unregulated, you can also be screwed when the government lets shady operators frack poison into your groundwater or steal your pension in a trillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. “But we were first – we gave this democracy thing a shot before anybody else in modern history, and we have this beautiful Constitution that’s helped us weather some pretty turbulent changes.” Our history contains real achievements, it’s true, but what does that have to do with where we are today? Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but I suspect you prefer the iPhone in your pocket.

* * *
During the second 2012 presidential debate, President Obama uttered another obnoxious phrase, but one that signaled a change in the way politicians are beginning to talk about America’s role in the world. “America remains the one indispensable nation,” he told us.

I had two immediate reactions. The first was to ask the obvious question – which ones are dispensable? And the second was a vague feeling that I was being patronized. We may not so good at manufacturing things anymore, and our education system may be a shambles, but we are somehow still crucial to ensuring that the world functions, that problems get addressed, that those lazy Europeans don’t fall asleep at the wheel. (Of course, given that we spent the last decade in an unnecessary war in Iraq and plunged the globe into a fear-filled frenzy about perpetual terror, I wonder what the citizens of those more “dispensable” nations might say.)

But as I suggested above, none of this rhetoric is really about the truth. It’s about feeding Americans’ egos. We’ve been taught to believe we’re special, on a plane above, and it’s confusing when the world genuflects less every day. Like any illusion, the notion of American exceptionalism constrains us, and shattering it can only be a good thing in the long run.

* * *
I spent the other morning in Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, and the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange stopped me cold. Photo after photo of people with the most grotesque and astonishing deformities I’ve ever seen – far more outlandish than anything Hollywood could dream up. Very little commentary – just a wall of pictures, and then another, and then another.

So long as we think of ourselves as exceptional, it will be hard for us to accept that our country has done some very bad things. We won’t let the evidence in, won’t let it come to consciousness, won’t let ourselves assess and integrate it. And even when we do, we’ll tend to believe that there were mitigating circumstances, that we were making the best of a bad situation, that it’s somehow different when we do it.

But it isn’t.

* * *
Ultimately, no matter how much we beat our chests, respect and deference cannot be commanded. Our wisest souls have always known this. Did Martin Luther King walk around proclaiming the depth of his moral courage? Did Gandhi boast of his compassion? No – because virtue doesn’t brag, cover up, or pretend. It simply is.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris January 5, 2014 at 6:43 am

Well said, Matt!

I remember my boss Nicholas Negroponte saying something similar on The Colbert Report:

Nicholas: Nationalism is a disease.
Stephen: Nationalism is a disease?
Nicholas: It’s a big disease, the biggest disease. We’re 5% of the world.
Stephen: … We’re the *best* 5% of the world.

I think Colbert did a pretty great job of parroting, and ultimately mocking, the kind of exceptionalism you’re attacking here.

jesselava January 5, 2014 at 10:22 pm

incisive piece. one thing, though, to give a very small quibble to a good post: there is always marketing in the kind of virtue you talk about. MLK and Gandhi didn’t say they were so great, but they didn’t have to, because others did it for them. candidates do that all the time — get proxies to say stuff so as not to appear to be bragging. the glorious image of MLK/gandhi was crucial to their power. so there is somehow a role for managing the presentation. that doesn’t mean the statement that we’re the greatest is correct, nor does it mean that asserting it is a good PR move. but i do mean to say that successes come from calculated strategy and image management more than we might like to believe, so it’s not quite sufficient to say that virtue “simply is.”

Matt Bieber January 8, 2014 at 9:45 am

Wow, that’s great that Negroponte spoke in such stark terms about nationalism! Not sure I’ve ever heard a prominent official or former officials speak in such terms…

Matt Bieber January 8, 2014 at 9:47 am

Thanks Jesse. I know that MLK and Gandhi had teams of supporters, but is it accurate to say that those supporters were doing the same kind of image management and brand promotion that we see from campaign staff? Could well be – I’m just not really aware of how their operations worked.

Chris January 8, 2014 at 10:47 am

Ah, I wouldn’t call Nicholas an official — it’s his brother John Negroponte who was Deputy Secretary of State/Director of National Intelligence. Nicholas is an academic.

Nicholas is extremely liberal and John is extremely conservative; they remind me of the Hitchens brothers.

I totally agree about how impressive it is to see someone call out nationalism explicitly, though. You’d think we’d get the hint — in general, when something ends in “-ism”, it’s pretty suspect. :-)

jesselava January 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with the inner workings either. But I know that in MLK’s case, the organizers out in the field often thought that when King came to town it was a big show – carefully constructed for PR purposes – while they were in the trenches doing the real work. I’m sure that’s unfair; having a figurehead who can speak so mellifluously to crowds and the cameras is incredibly important. But he was still very press savvy. And he surely kept a lot of his personal foibles and even early political views hidden for the sake of the message he wanted to convey. For Gandhi, he completely changed his image as it suited his movement. He started out looking like a westerner wearing suits, and he obviously crafted a very different image than that over time to be relatable to the public. There are also legitimate questions about whether he supported violence early on as well, only to change his mind as he came to believe that Indians had been to beaten down to use violence effectively. I’m sure PR packaging has gotten much more sophisticated in recent decades. But there’s something uncomfortable to me about being too facile in our appeals to MLK and Gandhi as the paragons of perfection. They lived in the same messy world that everyone else did. Their ability to navigate that world in savvy ways made them more effective and thus more worthy of admiration, not less.

Matt Bieber January 8, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Ah, my mistake.

Amen about “isms.” I’ve had the same thought – can you think of anything that ends in that suffix that you’d be willing to stand behind? For me, “Buddhism,” perhaps.

Chris January 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm


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