07/05/2012 01:50 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Were We Great?

In the premiere of Aaron Sorkin's new show, The Newsroom, -- Will McAvoy, the main character, is asked, "What makes America the greatest country in the world?"

McAvoy fires back with: "It's not." After berating the college student -- calling her part of the "Worst. Generation. Ever." -- he continues, "we sure used to be [the greatest country]." He waxes poetic about the past:

We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons; we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons; 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; we made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases; and we cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it, it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election. And we didn't -- we didn't scare so easy.

That monologue was one of the most offensive things I've heard on television, ever. Not because of the claim that we're "not the greatest country in the world" -- but rather because of the sheer, breathtaking inaccuracy of it all. The notion that things are getting worse with time, that each generation is the "Worst. Generation. Ever." is a common theme, but is rarely (if ever) right.

Sorkin paints a view of American history that goes beyond even deeply flawed: it's downright fictional. Certainly, we fought great battles for civil rights; we stood up to a dictatorial Soviet Union; we implemented the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society to fight poverty and illiteracy; we defeated Nazi Germany. But to look at the "good" things we've done is to ignore a significant portion of American history: For more than a century one of our two major political parties held segregation as key tenet; women were treated as second-class citizens until only a few decades ago, and marital rape was completely legal until the 1990s; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans were regularly assaulted with impunity, sometimes by police.

Are we really the "Worst. Generation. Ever."? Young people are by far more likely to support equality for LGBT Americans. We're told that we're not special, that we've been spoiled. But we've also been burdened with debt and are the first generation to look forward to a future in which we are more likely to be less well-off than our parents.

Despite our supposed inferiority, the march of progress has continued: numerous breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS treatment, the invention and expansion of the Internet (arguably one of the greatest tools for freedom yet developed), the first president ever to endorse marriage equality (and we -- the "Worst Generation" -- elected him!), and any number of other advances have all taken place in the past two decades.

We're told that we're less informed now, that we "used to" respect intelligence, that we didn't "scare so easy." Are we really, though? Have we forgotten about the McCarthy Era, the two Red Scares, the so-called Lavender Menace, the Hollywood witch hunts? More Americans today than ever before have a college degree -- can we really be less informed than we "used to"? Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a whole book -- in the 1960s! -- called Anti-intellectualism in American Life, but only now do we hate intellectuals? Sorry, I'm not buying.

This tendency to glorify the past is common, and goes far beyond Sorkin and his writing. Moreover, it is easy to see how appealing Sorkinesque Good-Ol'-Days-ism can be -- so long as you're not queer, female, a person of color, disabled, Jewish, or, well, anything but a straight, cisgender, white, Christian male. Living in our own time, it is easy to see the complexity, the nuance, and all the bad for what it is. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, observed, "Of course this sort of thinking is easy given the clarity of hindsight. I doubt people fighting those battles in the '40s felt the sort of clarity that we now see looking back. Likely the fight was always muddy and dizzying. Likely nothing was ever clean."

Sorkin got one thing right, though. Before Will's speech, he sees a woman holding up signs that read, "[America]'s not [the greatest country]/but it can be." And we really can be. But, first, we need to recognize that we are not on an inexorable decline, and that, in actuality, our ability to live up to the promises upon which our nation was founded -- the right of each person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- is completely contingent upon our dedication to achieving that dream. If we invest in science and education, ensure that no one starves to death or has to choose between healthcare and their home, work to eradicate HIV/AIDS and other disease, enforce equality under the law for all people, we can be more than great -- we actually can be the greatest.