Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Are We the Greatest?

One of the wonderful things about the Buddhist teachings is that they remind us to take nothing for granted, to keep asking questions, even—no, especially—of our own beliefs. In this light, I have to wonder what is it about us that we need to keep telling each other just how great we are? Do we really need to keep chanting the mantra that “we live in the greatest country in the world”?

Why is it that we persist in indulging in this essentially meaningless hyperbole? As in most cases where we “protest too much,” I suspect that it might be because the assertion lacks the ring of truth. Without a doubt, there are great things about America. We have great landscapes: I think of the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, the vista of the prairies, the Rocky Mountains. And the country has undoubtedly made great contributions to the history of humankind. We have produced people of truly impressive stature—Abraham Lincoln comes immediately to mind; but also men like Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Henry Thoreau, and women like Eleanor Roosevelt… Greatness, indeed. We have made vital contributions to the world; where would our planet be without the intervention of America’s brave forces in those two terrible wars that shaped the twentieth century? We landed men on the surface of the moon, for God’s sake—and brought them home…

But can’t we also agree that there are many things about us that are not so great? We are the only nation in the world, for example, to have resorted to the use of nuclear weapons on innocent civilians. I’m not unaware of the arguments put forth to justify this action, but it remains a less than glorious historical fact. We have, as a nation, committed near-genocide against the peoples who originally occupied this territory. We continue to dwell in willful ignorance on many fronts. We continue to permit poverty to exist within our borders, despite our unprecedented wealth. With all that wealth, we remain one of the last developed countries on the face of the planet to deny the right of basic health care to vast numbers of our citizens. We stand with those nations we condemn for their contempt for human rights in the barbaric practice of capital punishment and even, recently, to our shame, of torture. And what about elections, the sine qua non of the democracy we purport to practice? Where others manage to elect their leadership in a few short weeks, it takes us two years and hundreds of millions of dollars to arrive at nothing better than acrimony, discord and confusion.

The above happen to be some of my own choices, made at random. Others, if they give this matter some thoughtful consideration, will have their own.

As I see it, then, the mantra in question is repeated as a kind of superstitious charm, one that allows us to sleep in blissful ignorance of those aspects of our communal life that call out for serious self-examination. So long as we are “the greatest country in the world,” what would it matter that we lack a health care system that provides for all? (Oh, yes: we already have “the greatest health care in the world”!) And so long as we are truly “the greatest country in the world,” we surely have the right—the duty even—to believe that others are bound to emulate us in every way, to preach the gospel of our greatness to the ignorant, and to punish them if they fail to appreciate our grandeur and munificence.

Believing that “we live in the greatest country in the world” seems to give us permission to close our eyes to those things we really need to change. Race relations, anyone? Prison overcrowding and recidivism? Equal opportunity for all? Compassion for the less fortunate? I have no doubt that I’ll be taken to task for a supposed attempt to “run this country down.” I’ll be told—as many of us were told in the 1960s, remember?—to love it or leave it. But there’s a third alternative that, to me at least, is more attractive: why not let’s change it? Why not change the tone of our national dialogue from rhetorical posturing and recrimination to one where we agree to make the effort to see ourselves as we are, not as we wish or imagine ourselves to be? And yes, to open the door, not for an avalanche of denial but for some profitable and healthy self-examination?

“The greatest country in the world” is a palliative that eases the conscience even as it closes the mind. As at least one of our political candidates has reminded us, we can do better than this. We can borrow some wisdom from the Buddha, and keep asking those questions that need so badly to be asked. We could even, with a little mutual listening and tolerance, find our way to a compassionate and practicable Middle Path.


Jay Andrew Allen said...

Great post!

Your reference to this mantra as a "gospel" strikes me as compelling. It's as if, with explicit references to the Judeo-Christian God becoming more anathema in the political arena, the political right is leaning more and more on "America" as a God-proxy. Extolling God has fallen out of vogue due to the rise of this country's diversity and our diversity-consciousness. So the right latches on to the one remaining concept - America - that it can treat as an article of faith. Thanks to patriotic sentiment, it can largely cajole the left to join it in chanting this mantra.

As you noted, this introduces a host of problems - not least of which is that it limits us from thinking of ourselves as part of the *world* community. It also inculcates a provincialism that prevents the best ideas of other countries from taking root in our own.

One significant way in which I'd love to see our country change is its attitude toward wealth. In the past 70 years, we've shifted from reinvesting our productivity gains into greater leisure time, and used our wealth instead as the feeding-fire of affluence and overconsumption. You can see the deleterious effects on both the environment and on the overworked, overstressed American psyche. Such change won't - can't - be brought about if we're not honest with ourselves about our country's deficiencies.

thailandchani said...

It's typical propaganda and every country seems to do it. There is no such thing as "the greatest country". Anywhere. It has taken all the countries in the world to create everything we all have.

I always thought it was nonsense and still do. It's offensive nonsense.

As to why, well, someone would have to write a whole book. Nationalism is nationalism. It's a destructive force in the world and really needs to stop.

As it's recognized and human beings give up the need to be "better than", the mantra will stop because it will finally ring as hollow as it truly is.

Anonymous said...

If I showed you a way to cure poverty would you do it or are you one of the millions that would ignore it and just keep on complaining? If I gave you Billions upon Billions of Dollars worth of opportunities would you see that the underprivileged were helped? Would you do everything in your power to "make it so"? Would you skim a bit off the top for yourself? If I gave you step by step instructions of what to do would you do it? Here is a small part of what makes this country great, creating opportunities, let's see what you do with it. The Benefactor Project.com.

I have just done two things.
I have provided $67.5 Billion Dollars worth of opportunity per year to you for your use. Second, I have rescinded your right to complain.

Have whatever kind of day suits you.

PeterAtLarge said...

Jay Allen--thanks, yes. There's a great column by Bob Herbert in today's NY Times about wealth--and poverty.

Chani--yes, even as a child I remember being puzzled by nationalism. Do you know the (Wifred Owen? Rupert Brooks?) poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est"--"it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." As a 14-year old, after WWII, I read those lines from WWI and was moved by their condemnation of nationalism. In today's world, you're right, we really need to put an end to it.

Anon-- (Tom, I'm guessing) I had thought to do a reality check and a plea, not a complaint. Anyway, thanks for the $67.5 billion. You made my day. I'm just beginning to draw up my list for how to spend it--with a bit off the top for me. Ten percent? Does that seem fair? PS When does the check arrive? Cheers to you, PaL

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Peter, your post strikes me as fair-minded and accurate. It is impossible to improve ourselves, either individually or nationally, if we can't admit that not everything is working perfectly.

The need to be the greatest usually bespeaks great insecurity. I feel blessed to live in a country where I have so many options and where I am in minimal danger of stepping on a land mine. There is much to love about America and I do, but we can always do better.

You have suggested some of the best places to start, health care, homelessness, and God yes, race relations. No country should become complacent or rest on its laurels, no matter how impressive they are.

We can always do better, and we owe it to ourselves to figure out how.

Cardozo said...

I agree with you, Peter, and with what people have been saying in the comments. But I'd like to add the following.

The more I think, read, and experience, the clearer it becomes to me that the paradigm of competition ("us vs. them") stands as the largest "root cause" of physical and mental suffering around the world.

Unfortunately, even within the progressive movement, the paradigm generally holds, as evidenced by the (hardly constructive) demonization of the right.

citizen of the world said...

The "We are the Greatest" mantra also ignores the fact that there is greatest all oevr the world Sure, we have some breath-taking scenery here - but what about the maginicent Alps? The incredible wildlife roaming the Serengeti? The crystalline waters of the West Indies? And on, and on, and on. Sure, we've had citizens who have done amazing things, but so have many other cultures. YOu ge my drift. There's good and bad in us all, and we'd do well to stop congratualting ourselves and start recognizing our place as part of a more global society.

khengsiong said...

Reminds me of a Chinese leader's speech during the country's National Day...
"Long life the Great People's Republic of China; Long life the Great Communist Party of China; Long life the Great Chinese people."

U.S. is the greatest nation in the world NOW, but remember the Buddhist principle of impermanence.

PeterAtLarge said...

A sobering reminder, Khengsiong! Thank you. There was a time when Rome ruled the world. And, of course, Britannia!

Thanks to all for a good discussion on this topic.