“Why is America the greatest country in the world?” a coed asks the assembled media pundits on season opener of HBO’s The Newsroom.
Aaron Sorkin is an Academy and Emmy award-winning American screenwriter, producer, and playwright, whose works include A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, and Moneyball. He has presided over some of the greatest moments in TV and he did it again recently in the opening episode of The Newsroom. The show is a behind the scenes look at the creation of cable news, starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston. In this opening episode Daniels, playing fictional news anchor Will McAvoy, states, “America is not the greatest country in the world.” The YouTube clip of the scene has received 1.7 million views, under the heading “the most honest three minutes on television.”
It is not the greatest country in the world. Professor that is my answer . . . With a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones that have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom . . . There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world: we’re 7th in literacy, 27nd in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labourforce and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories—number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe that angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combine, 25 of which are allies . . .
The blinding hubris of the United States with its narcissistic exceptionalism is not lost on our neighbours to the north and south. It was Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood who noted “American borders are the world’s largest one-way mirror.” American greatness is in steep decline. In many measures of cultural strength, the United States lags behind the rest of the world. And yet we still carry a big stick and are moving a second carrier group into the Persian Gulf. Few other nations can extend this kind of military power.
Rich kids with a plethora of toys do well to maintain some measure of self-conscious awareness about how they are perceived on the playground. It is this lack of self-awareness that remains a constant irritant to others and embarrassment to those of us U.S. citizens who grew up in other countries. Humility will be in short supply over the course of the next few weeks, as the International Olympics will ramp up the expectations of USA athletic success to staggering heights. The athletic clamour may be in inverse proportion to the national reality.
Eyebrows were raised worldwide last week when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D., Nevada) criticized the U.S. Olympic committee and its uniform sponsor Ralph Lauren for making the U.S. uniforms in China. He stated, “I think the Olympic Committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms and put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.” Perhaps it is more hot air out of Washington, but it is clearly symbolic jingoism that is out of all step with reality. And it is hardly helpful to stick one’s finger in the eye of a country that holds 26% of our national debt. “Thank you,” would have seemed more in order. As the uniform scuffle played out across the television airwaves, I was surprised to hear my wife suggest, “I think it is time we think about moving to Canada.”
Soon the Olympics will be upon us and the storylines will be about more than uniforms. Teams will have to leave it on the pitch. There will be winners and losers. But in a world fraught with military tension, diplomatic unease, and economic uncertainty, ours is a time for quiet humility, competitive camaraderie, and an honest reminder of the ideals that lie behind the Olympic Games. As Piere de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, stated in 1896, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Every successive Olympics features greater proliferation of instant and ubiquitous digital communication. Everything will be escalated; everything revealed. It would be best to summon our best angels before the opening ceremony, for jingoism on this stage has more than athletic ramifications. It will be wise to keep some measure of perspective even as the tears flow and the national anthem plays.