03/12/2008 01:00 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are We the Greatest...?

One of the wonderful things about the Buddhist teachings is that they remind us to take nothing for granted, to keep asking questions, even -- no, especially -- of our own beliefs. In this light, I have to wonder what is it about us that we need to keep telling each other just how great we are? Do we really need to keep chanting the mantra that "we live in the greatest country in the world"?

Why is it that we persist in indulging in this essentially meaningless hyperbole? As in most cases where we "protest too much," I suspect that it might be because the assertion lacks the ring of truth. Without a doubt, there are great things about America. We have great landscapes: I think of the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, the vista of the prairies, the Rocky Mountains. And the country has undoubtedly made great contributions to the history of humankind. We have produced people of truly impressive stature -- Abraham Lincoln comes immediately to mind; but also men like Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Henry Thoreau, and women like Eleanor Roosevelt... Greatness, indeed. We have made vital contributions to the world; where would our planet be without the intervention of America's brave forces in those two terrible wars that shaped the twentieth century? We landed men on the surface of the moon, for God's sake -- and brought them home...

But can't we also agree that there are many things about us that are not so great? We are the only nation in the world, for example, to have resorted to the use of nuclear weapons on innocent civilians. I'm not unaware of the arguments put forth to justify this action, but it remains a less than glorious historical fact. We have, as a nation, committed near-genocide against the peoples who originally occupied this territory. We continue to dwell in willful ignorance on many fronts. We continue to permit poverty to exist within our borders, despite our unprecedented wealth. With all that wealth, we remain one of the last developed countries on the face of the planet to deny the right of basic health care to vast numbers of our citizens. We stand with those nations we condemn for their contempt for human rights in the barbaric practice of capital punishment and even, recently, to our shame, of torture. And what about elections, the sine qua non of the democracy we purport to practice? Where others manage to elect their leadership in a few short weeks, it takes us two years and hundreds of millions of dollars to arrive at nothing better than acrimony, discord and confusion.

The above happen to be some of my own choices, made at random. Others, if they give this matter some thoughtful consideration, will have their own.

As I see it, then, the mantra in question is repeated as a kind of superstitious charm, one that allows us to sleep in blissful ignorance of those aspects of our communal life that call out for serious self-examination. So long as we are "the greatest country in the world," what would it matter that we lack a health care system that provides for all? (Oh, yes: we already have "the greatest health care in the world"!) And so long as we are truly "the greatest country in the world," we surely have the right -- the duty even -- to believe that others are bound to emulate us in every way, to preach the gospel of our greatness to the ignorant, and to punish them if they fail to appreciate our grandeur and munificence.

Believing that "we live in the greatest country in the world" seems to give us permission to close our eyes to those things we really need to change. Race relations, anyone? Prison overcrowding and recidivism? Equal opportunity for all? Compassion for the less fortunate? I have no doubt that I'll be taken to task for a supposed attempt to "run this country down." I'll be told -- as many of us were told in the 1960s, remember? -- to love it or leave it. But there's a third alternative that, to me at least, is more attractive: why not let's change it? Why not change the tone of our national dialogue from rhetorical posturing and recrimination to one where we agree to make the effort to see ourselves as we are, not as we wish or imagine ourselves to be? And yes, to open the door, not for an avalanche of denial but for some profitable and healthy self-examination?

"The greatest country in the world" is a palliative that eases the conscience even as it closes the mind. As at least one of our political candidates has reminded us, we can do better than this. We can borrow some wisdom from the Buddha, and keep asking those questions that need so badly to be asked. We could even, with a little mutual listening and tolerance, find our way to a compassionate and practicable Middle Path.