Was it ever?
I only ask the question because of a clip I saw on my Facebook feed this morning. It comes from HBO’s series, The Newsroom, and it features actor Jeff Daniels giving a college student a lot more than she asked for in response to her question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Interestingly, the clip taken from YouTube has been titled, The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
After nearly 5.8M views on YouTube, it is fairly safe to classify the video as “viral.” Certainly, plenty of people have taken to fact checking the text of Daniels’ diatribe and conclude it is flawed. Here is one example. There is, not surprisingly, a flip side of the same coin where people see a lot of truth in the clip. Nonny Mouse at the blog, Crooks and Liars, uses the Newsroom clip as leaping off point to proclaim:
One of the smallest countries in the world (i.e. New Zealand) is kicking our ass when it comes to actually living up to the standards we Americans pretend we still have. Isn’t it about time we stopped kidding ourselves, stopped living on past glories that mostly never were, and started actually trying to be at least as good as one of the smallest nations on earth?
Bloggers aren’t the only ones who have set their hand to the task of answering the question if America is [still] the greatest country on the earth. Members of academia, like Philosophy Professor Steven D. Hales at Bloomsburg University, have also pondered the question, even several years in advance of the now famous YouTube video. You can read his 2006 article, Why the U.S. is Not the Best Country in the World here.
Hales approaches this task in the right way, wishing to set aside any subjective measurements and concentrate on more “objective criteria.” In order to accomplish his task, Hales selects five criteria to examine: freedom, literacy, health, happiness of citizens, standard of living. There are, I think, some really obvious problems with Hales’ approach. For example, the fact that he has chosen the five categories he did introduces a level of subjectivity into his assessment. I mean, who says these five criteria are the ones that should be used to asses the “greatness” of any country? I am not saying he chose them in advance in order to help him arrive at his conclusion, but that possibility certainly exists. Also, some of the criteria he selected (i.e. “freedom” and “happiness of citizens”) are extremely subjective in nature.
In any event, Hales arrives at the following conclusion:
The United States is a great country – one of the greatest in the world. But we are crippled by our own myths….So we are unable to recognize that other peoples have succeeded in finding good ways to live that are different from our own. In short, we believe our own publicity. Yet by doing so the United States prevents itself from becoming what it claims to be: the best country in the world.
Do you have any thoughts on where America falls out on the “greatness” scale? It is indeed a difficult question. Since I don’t believe people around the world could agree on what “greatness” is, I think the very question itself leads to frustration. A clear, universal understanding of “greatness” would have to be reached before anyone could ever begin conducting an assessment of countries and then rank them.
While the more technical statistics seem to point to America’s decline (see competitiveness ranking), the “myths” or “publicity” surrounding the United States are as real as labor market efficiency and technological readiness. When it comes to immigration, legal or illegal, more people come to the United States than any other place on the planet.
I think the safest, and possibly surest, answer we can give to the question, “Is America still the greatest nation on earth” is America is ostensibly still the greatest nation on earth. While there is no doubt the United States is falling (or has fallen) behind in many global economic categories, there are people who still have dreams and feel their best shot at realizing them lie within the borders of the United States. If we could find a way to harness the intensity of their desire, their raw energy, their unbridled creativity and mix it with some good old fashion American “know how,” then maybe, just maybe, we could see some of those other (i.e. economic) categories rise.