Thursday, October 15, 2009

One nation, under illusion

THE HOARIEST and most oft-repeated cliche in American politics may be that America is the greatest country in the world. Every politician, Democrat and Republican, seems duty bound to pander to this idea of American exceptionalism, and woe unto him who hints otherwise. This country is "the last, best hope of mankind,'' or the "shining city on the hill,'' or the "great social experiment.'' As if this weren't enough, Jimmy Carter upped the fawning ante 30 years ago by uttering arguably the most damning words in modern American politics. He called for a "government as good as the American people,'' thus taking national greatness and investing it in each and every one of us.

Carter was speaking when Watergate was fresh, and government had been disgraced, but still. The fact of the matter is that whenever anything really significant has been accomplished by our government, it is precisely because it was better than the American people.

Think of World War II, America's entrance into which was strenuously resisted by the populace until Franklin Roosevelt carefully laid the groundwork and Pearl Harbor made it inevitable. Think of civil rights, which Lyndon Johnson pressed despite widescale opposition, and not just in the South. Even then it took more than 100 years. Or think of the current health care debate in which Americans seem to desire some sort of reform, just not a reform that would significantly help people in dire need, while the Obama administration is pushing to provide that assistance. In the end, government has inspired Americans far more than Americans have inspired their government. They are too busy boasting.

There is nothing wrong with self-satisfaction or national pride. But the incessant trumpeting of our national superiority to every other country in the world is more than just off-putting and insulting. It is infantile, like the vaunting of a schoolyard bully that his Dad is better than your Dad. It is wrong. And it might be dangerous both to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Consider what it means. By what standard is one nation any greater than any other nation? Yes, the United States has vast material resources - we rank eighth in gross domestic product per capita - but we also have, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the "highest inequality and poverty rate'' in the world, outside of Mexico and Turkey, and things are getting worse. Nothing to boast of there.

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