I was recently in steamy Atlanta visiting a friend. While sipping mint juleps at a pool party, I heard a women's voice loudly declare, "America is number one!" She was recalling an argument she had with a German man who was on a short visit to the States. He made a comment that was critical of our foreign policy -- certainly not all that provocative considering our current disaster in the Middle East. The woman was recalling to a group of agreeing partygoers how she informed him we are the greatest country in the world.
It, of course, begs an important question: what do we mean by "number one?" In what way(s) are we the best, and how do we quantify such greatness? Many people would argue this is just an expression of our patriotism. That is all well and good, but does being patriotic mean you have to believe your own country is somehow intrinsically better than all the others? The confidence of this statement seems especially dubious when made in a culture as provincial as ours. According to the Yale Center for the Study on Globalization, in 1965 more than 16 percent of all American university students studied a foreign language. Now only 8.6 percent do. The women who made the declaration of our superiority admitted that she herself had never traveled outside of our borders. How do we know we are better if we never actually go to another country?
Perhaps we are basing our assumptions on well-researched political, anthropological and sociological studies? When I hear a bunch of drunken people chanting "USA! USA! USA!" in my local pub I seriously doubt it. As a point of comparison, let's see how America ranks in some important categories:
Healthcare: Certainly an important measure of a country's greatness is how it takes care of its citizenry. According the World Health Organization, the U.S. ranks 37th in the world in overall health care. Americans annually spend $5,267 per capita on medical costs, while the industrialized world's median is $2,193.
Pollution: Perhaps the most important issue facing the world community is global warming. Rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes and droughts in the already beleaguered developing world would have disastrous implications for our planet. According the U.S. Department of Energy Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center America ranks number one in Carbon Dioxide emissions, which is the leading cause of rising temperatures.
Economy: One of the most oft-heard arguments for our countries greatness is the opportunity it affords to industrious people. While this is certainly true, American has some serious economic issues that must be addressed. For example, we have the largest external debt of any nation, just over 10 billion dollars. Americans also work longer hours for less pay than their European counterparts.
I love America. If given the choice, there is nowhere else I would rather live. But that does not mean I have to accept our superiority through blind faith. We are a great country, but there are ways we could be even greater. To point that out in effort to improve our nation, I believe, is the most patriotic thing we can do.