The Universal Notebook: Is America the greatest country in the world?
If you haven’t already seen it, you should Google “Jeff Daniels, greatest country” and watch his wonderfully impassioned and articulated rant as news anchor Will McAvoy on the pilot episode of HBO’s "The Newsroom."
Speaking and acting words written by screenwriter/producer Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network"), Daniels’ McAvoy unloads on a college coed who asks him why America is the greatest country in the world.
“And you, Sorority Girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know,” he responds. “One of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, fourth in labor force and fourth in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending – where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.
“Now none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you nonetheless are without a doubt a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the (bleep) you're talking about.”
Most Americans alive today grew up with a sense of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is different, special, and by extension better than all other countries because it has a worldwide mission to spread and defend freedom and democracy.
But are we really the greatest country in the world?
Well, Daniels/McAvoy/Sorkin could have kept cataloguing America’s first-place flaws, as we are also first in obesity, divorce, pollution, national debt, hours of television watched, weapons sales, murder, rape, and fuel consumption. On the other hand, America is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world and we are the global leader in productivity, charitable giving and foreign aid.
You can play the ranking game all day long and come up with a different country as the best each time, depending on what you’re measuring. In 2010, Newsweek, for instance, ranked 100 countries based on education, health care, quality of life, economic dynamism and political environment. America came out No. 11 behind Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Japan and Denmark. The Scandinavian countries always rank high in terms of quality of life, but then they are small, incredibly homogeneous countries that can afford to take better care of their citizenry than we do.
For me, the value of McAvoy’s assertion that we are not the greatest country in the world came in his sober reflection at the end of the rant.
“We sure used to be,” he observes. “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and acted like men. ... We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed, by great men. ... The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world any more.”
My parents’ generation is called the Greatest Generation because they were willing to make incredible sacrifices in hopes of leaving their children a better world. My generation, the Baby Boomers, have taken the “Do your own thing” of the 1960s counterculture into the mainstream, where it has turned cancerous. We have turned self-sacrifice into self-service, selflessness into a culture of selfishness such as the world has never seen.
We now have millions of self-centered Americans who think the end of the free world is at hand because they have been asked to purchase health insurance or pay a tax to help defray the cost of providing health care to the uninsured. Just imagine the hue and cry that would go up from the rabble on the right if Americans were actually asked to make sacrifices in the national interest. Ration gasoline? Raise taxes? What is this, a socialist dictatorship?
No, just the way America used to be when it was the greatest country in the world.