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America Isn't the Greatest Country on Earth -- And That's Just Fine

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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.