Yesterday was the 60th July 4 of my life. My wife and I heard a small band playing patriotic music in the park and the band director made the usual speech. This a line from his speech almost verbatim: “America is the greatest country in the world and the greatest nation ever to have existed in history.”
Such a claim is easy to refute. The United States does not rank number 1 or even in the top 10 in the United Nations 2014 World Happiness Report. (A detailed report of quality of life.) And by multiple metrics—health care, education, economic equality, life expectancy, infant mortality, income mobility and more—it is nowhere near the top. It is also hard for the USA to compare favorably with many societies in history. For example, the use of the civil service examinations in ancient China helped produced nearly a thousand years of peace and prosperity—truly one of the greatest civilizations in history.
However the USA is number one in total persons and per capita numbers incarcerated, military spending (7 times more than any other nation), adult obesity, divorce rate, hours of TV watched, reported car theft, rapes, murders and total crime, both legal and illegal drug use, student loan debt, pornography created (90% of the world porn is created in the USA), and more. (We are #5 in executions behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; but ahead of Pakistan and North Korea. So we need to work harder here to be #1.)
But perhaps the band director was not an O’Reilly, Limbaugh, or Hannity demagogue but a sincere believer. Perhaps he loves civilization in general and his in particular; perhaps he was expressing a warm feeling for his homeland; or perhaps he loves the ideals on which his country was founded. He might grant that the USA was not really number one objectively, but subjectively. For better or worse, he loved this place; it was his home.
To better understand the band leader’s feelings compare them with the sentiments of a Christian or Muslim who learns about Taoism or Buddhism. Such persons might conclude that these Eastern religions are superior to their own–say because they seem more consistent with modern science or have historically engaged in less persecution. Still such individuals might retain their current religious affiliation because it is comfortable and familiar. Maybe they just can’t see themselves as Buddhists. Perhaps the band leader felt something like this. Not that the USA was objectively better than the Scandinavian countries—which top the USA by a wide margin in most metrics—but that the USA was better for him. Ok. It is hard to argue with a feeling.
Still there is something troubling about the “USA number 1” talk. First it is self-congratulatory. It covers up a real insecurity. If we are really #1 must we remind ourselves and others of it constantly? If you are a great person do you always have to tell everybody how great you are? Doesn’t boasting usually indicative of the lack of humility?
Moreover, if we see our country in such a fine light we may lack the motivation to improve it. Who cares that 22% of all children in the USA grow up in families living below the federal poverty level, or that nearly 50% grow up in families that can’t meet basic expenses. Who cares that the USA has more people under correctional supervision now than the total population of all those in Stalin’s gulags! Who cares that the USA is the only developed nation in which millions of its citizen have no access to health insurance, and thus lack basic health care? (These numbers are declining thanks the Affordable Care Act. Better still to have a national health-care system like all the other developed countries of the world—it is less costly and delivers better results. It is better both morally and economically.) Who cares about any of this since the USA is #1?
So when I’m asked “do you love your country?” the answer is mixed. I love my wife and she is part of the country. I love the national parks and they are a part of the country. But I don’t love mass incarceration, thousands dying for lack of health care, levels of economic inequality surpassing those of the gilded age, or the horrors committed by the empire. To love such things about your country is perverse. On balance then the USA is better than some but worse than a lot others, assuming your basic criteria is providing the conditions in which all citizens have the opportunity to flourish. (This was roughly Aristotle’s view of a good society.)
But most importantly this patriotic bravado is dangerous. If we believe that we are the greatest nation, then imposing our culture on others naturally follows—patriotic fervor is a large part of the origin of imperialism and genocide. I have written elsewhere about how believing that you have a monopoly on the truth can be perilous, and the same can be said of cultures believing they are the best. Here is how the contemporary American philosopher Simon Critchley makes this point:
The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades … We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.
This moving video excerpt from Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician and polymath, poignantly drives home this point. In the old video Bronowski visits Auschwitz, where he reflects on the horrors that follow when people believe their culture and their nation and culture are the best. The video serves as a testimony to remind all of us to be more humble.