Saturday, April 16, 2016

Is America Really the Greatest Country in the World?

Here is a video that challenges what seems to be accepted here in the United States without question, at least by what appears to be a strong majority of people.

Yet, we Americans really should question that notion, at least more than we do. After all, one of the major problems that this country faces is the disconnect between what people here seem to think and feel is normal, and how differently the rest of the world feels about it. We have grown so used to be a superpower, and the presumption of superiority has for so long been allowed to go unchecked, that Americans take it as an automatic.

This is an unfortunate reality, but that does not mean it is not a reality. When you call self-proclaimed patriotic Americans on it outright, they might show signs of hesitation. They might (and the emphasis on might) suggest that they do not actually feel that they are better than everyone else just by virtue of their nationality, or where they happened to be born or raised.

However, the signs are everywhere that a majority of Americans believe in a certain exceptionalism that is often illusory when the facts are presented. It is ingrained within the American system, or the American way of doing things, almost from the start. American children have to recite the pledge of allegiance every day, and the only questioning of the pledge that many Americans ever engage in is whether the words "In God we Trust" should be in them. Most of the outside world questions why American children should take this pledge daily in the first place, and I remember an English professor at Rutgers who suggested that most people outside of the United States feel that the pledge of allegiance is "creepy." Some students laughed, but others most certainly did not, and there was an awkward quiet that prevailed over those students. Perhaps it was the first time that they had heard someone questioning something that they probably had never given much thought to, either way, to begin with.

But it does not end there. There are constant reminders that we Americans should view ourselves as truly unique, and even as better than everyone else. Such reminders come in the form of either the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem (sometimes both) being performed before public events, big and small. That includes everything from the local high school play to the biggest sporting event, and sometimes even concerts. Another comes when the President of the United States (and every one of them during my lifetime has done this) ends speeches with the words "God Bless America." Why not, as Bill Maher once suggested, borrowing from Tiny Tim, and saying "God Bless us all, every one" instead?

Why this exclusivity with everything and everyone within our sacred American borders, and presumably to hell with everyone else? Why do we view so many on the outside as threats to our supposed greatness? Why do we constantly contemplate building walls to keep the Mexicans out, or making sure that we keep Muslims out? Why do we dismiss European government programs designed to benefit the lives of everyday, ordinary citizens as dangerous "socialist" programs, and as a first step towards an inevitable communist/fascist (as if they were one and the same) dictatorship? Why do allegedly patriotic and God-fearing politicians so frequently repeat just how exceptional they find America, and why do so many of them (and others) constantly repeat that America is the greatest country in the world? Why is the American flag seen almost everywhere, on gas stations, on car dealerships, in front of people's homes, and sometimes even on bumper stickers? Is it because some people do not want you to forget where you are, just in case you forgot where you are in the twenty seconds between sightings of the flag?

For decades now, we have had politicians win the hearts and minds of Americans by prominent displays of their patriotism, and more often than not they have worn their devout religious beliefs on their sleeves, as well. They continually assure Americans that they are exceptional, and that we Americans can overcome any obstacle, so long as we believe in ourselves and stay true to the American Dream. In the meantime, they have done everything possible to detract from the quality of the lives of most Americans by actively advocating for the special interests of the wealthiest among us, as well as to corporations. These politicians tell Americans what they want to hear, and time and again, Americans swallowed. It began with Ronald Reagan, who started so much of what we now clearly see as excessive and decadent, although it has just continued to spiral out of control. The rich got richer, corporations gained more power, and an elected government democratically voted in by the people became weaker and were distrusted in every manner, and in ways that really mattered. In the meantime, the military industrial complex grew stronger and stronger as more big money poured in, virtually making future wars inevitable.

All of this happened slowly but surely, over the course of decades, so that each little step down was barely noticed. It was not a big leap, then, to convince the American people that a war that the rest of the world was strongly opposed to was nonetheless a good idea, and Bush further inflamed American outrage at any opposition to his war by telling the American people during a State of the Union address that the United States does not need a "permission slip" from the United Nations, or from the world community at large, in order to wage an unpopular and, frankly, unjustified war.

When the rest of the world has a problem with the United States, and with the American mindset, it is almost exclusively with our politics. After all, our movies, our music, and many of our products are popular. Most countries and people, far from hating us, actually emulate us. For example, if the French hated Americans as much as most people believe, than why do they continually elect politicians who want to retain strong allegiances with the United States? Why do they go see so many American movies, listen to so much American music, and eat so much American food? After all, McDonald's is a more common sight in Paris than it is in Manhattan. Some Americans think that Europeans hate Americans, but when I visited numerous European countries, they dressed like Americans, often ate like Americans, listened to what Americans listened to, and enjoyed the same movies, the same toys, the same books, everything. That, to me, hardly suggests a hatred.

But there is one thing that much of the world outside of American borders simply does not understand, much less trust, about Americans, and I think that this can actually be boiled down to one thing: American exceptionalism. The constant, in your face belief that we are better than the rest of the world, and can do whatever the hell we want whenever the hell we want to do it, precisely because we are Americans.

This ideology has been exploited by politicians in order to promote a political agenda that has served Americans very poorly, and gone against their best interests, both domestically and in terms of their foreign policy. American workers do not enjoy the same benefits as their counterparts in literally every other industrialized nation, such as affordable, universal healthcare, or maternity leave, affordable childcare, strong retirement benefits, sick leave, strong public transportation, etc.. And that is just domestic politics, saying nothing about the wars that the United States has gotten itself wrapped up in, and the numerous shady ways that it seems to generate more enemies with their foreign activities, despite the advertisement that this is necessary to keep Americans secure. After all, Al Qaeda and ISIS both used American weapons against Americans, although too many Americans dismiss this notion.

What we need here in America is more of a challenge to the conventional notion of our inherent superiority, and that is why I incorporated this video into this blog entry.

Back when I was a kid, one American reporter, John Stassel, decided to explore this theme, but he did it in a misleading manner. If memory serves correctly, the name of this show was "Is America Really #1?" My father and I watched, but we were quickly disappointed, as Stassel, who would go on to show his true colors by joining FAUX News, compared the situation in the United States to some of the poorest and most oppressed countries in the world, conveniently forgetting about other industrialized nations. Not surprisingly, his conclusion was that America is, indeed, the greatest country in the world.

The video above questions that, and significantly. Personally, I think that the United States would be a better country if more people actually paid attention to messages like this.

The first person to answer, presumably a liberal, suggests that America is the greatest country in the world because of "diversity and opportunity."

The second person to answer the question, presumably a conservative, says: "Freedom and freedom. So let's keep it that way."

Each answer gets some appreciative nods from a smiling audience.

I used to believe that at the very moment that the United States reached it's peak, Americans began to grow more inward looking, and began some of the ugly and excessive behaviors like excessive patriotism bordering on nationalism. Or, in short, narcissism. Fear skyrocketed up, and the overall quality of life started going down. It took a while to get there, and in the meantime, Americans never tired of endless streams of politicians expressing their supposed patriotism by flag waving and echoing hollow sentiments of this country being the greatest in the world, even while they seemed to be working hard in the background to undermine all of those great things about the country.

Yet, the one thing that all of our prominent leaders and office holders agree on is "American exceptionalism." Can you remember the last time we had an American president, or even a prominent candidate for the highest office, not regularly suggest that this is the greatest country in the world? When is the last time that a President from either party address the country and not end with the words "God bless America?" Now, when is the last time that you felt a real pride and faith in such a leader, and felt that, truly, they had the very best of intentions in their heart? Sometimes, people do not understand why I believe that the Democrats and Republicans are, in effect, different wings of the same party. They are both sponsored by many of the same corporations that have a clear vested interest in election results, and both parties are filed with loathsome characters trying to climb the ladder by wearing false values on their sleeves that they almost never actually live up to. Chief among these is what passes for a love of country, but is really an argument for American superiority the world over. Then, of course, we wonder why so much of the rest of the world hates us and does not trust us.

I remember reading in some old issue of the National Geographic that a foreign couple visiting the United States were struck by how many American flags were on display. They were sure it must have been a national holiday, but that was not the case. Ir reminded me of my father, who is from France, and who was struck by the same thing. I have met quite a few foreigners who never failed to be astonished by this same thing: all of the flags, and the constant reminders of where you are. Indeed, on a typical commute to work, I will pass by gas stations and car dealerships that proudly display their nationalistic fervor. Countless private residences where the flag is proudly displayed. Even, often, vehicles that have the American flag displayed prominently somewhere on them, whether with a bumper sticker, or outright waving a flag (sometimes a huge one) somewhere on the car. It is like we are afraid that we might forget, if even for a few seconds, where we are, until we feel comforted by yet another reminder with the umpteenth flag that we have seen in the last five minutes! In short, it's excessive.

As if this were not enough, Americans constantly need to be reminded of their own greatness. We learn to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" before we are even old enough to understand what the individual words mean, let alone such lofty concepts that these are supposed to represent. The debate is about whether we should have the words "Under God" in that pledge, but there is never, ever any debate about whether we should force our children to say the pledge in the first place. We hear from early on about how this is the "greatest country in the world," and how this is "God's country," and that the American president is the "leader of the free world." In the history books, we learn how Americans have for centuries believed themselves to be the "shining city on the hill," the beacon of hope for the entire world. We are constantly reminded that this is the world's leading superpower, and we are spoon fed the lie that this is where freedom reigns supreme, more than anywhere else in the world - something that has become patently untrue over the course of recent years and decades. Add to that the countless instances when we see the flag, or other patriotic images, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Capitol Building, the White House, Mount Rushmore, the Liberty Bell, or documents like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, and before long, it is hard to see anything else. When you start to accept all of these things, it is only logical that you do not take any other countries seriously. Before long, whenever another country resists the influence of the United States, be they friend or foe, we view them in a condescending fashion. Why can't they just admit that they are jealous of us, and want to be like us? We are on top of the world, so obviously, they should be following our example.

This thinking has grown all out of proportion, and has gone unchallenged for way too long, and to the detriment of the country!

Yes, I used to wonder how it was that so many Americans suddenly subscribed to an unofficial doctrine of growing vanity and an intensely nationalistic xenophobia.

In time, however, I cam to believe that the decline of the country was itself a product of this chest thumping, ugly narcissism.

A healthy patriotism, to me, would look like this: we would honestly acknowledge the mistakes and yes, even crimes committed along the way, yet remain optimistic based on our ability to overcome that, and the many accomplishments that the country has managed to achieve, and the countless obstacles it has overcome. We would recognize the darker chapters not to hang on to some sense of lingering guilt, or to feel bad about the successes that we have seen since, but simply to recognize the errors that we have made in order not to repeat them. Simple as that.

Through such a prism, American history would be regarded a lot differently than it is today.

We could do worse than to acknowledge that.

9 Things Many Americans Just Don’t Grasp (Compared to the Rest of the World) Americans' lack of worldliness clouds their views on everything from economics to sex to religion. By Alex Henderson / AlterNet March 25, 2015:

Is America the greatest country ?  - posted by Ashraf Kochai "The Most Honest Three Minutes In Televion History :))" (sic)

The Newsroom - America is not the greatest country in the world anymore...(Restricted language):

In the Social Progress Index, the United States excels in access to advanced education but ranks 70th in health, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation and 31st in personal safety. Even in access to cellphones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.

We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1! by Nicholas Kristof The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST   APRIL 2, 2014:

Joel Price t is often proclaimed, "America is the GREATEST nation ever!"
I actually recoil from such ethnocentric, jingoistic assertions. Not because America is not possessed of greatness , but because such hackneyed platitudes ignore the dark, ugly, ignoble aspe
cts of 'Americanism".

America was noble when it proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence," All men are created equal".
America was ignoble when,in the same era , it institutionalized slavery in the Constitution.

America was great when it said in the Constitution "(no) person (shall) be deprived...of life, liberty, or property, without due process..."
America was base when, at the same time, women had no liberty and were considered mere chattel.

America was great when it said in the Constitution "(no) person (shall) be deprived...of life, liberty, or property, without due process...".
America was treacherous when,in the same era, Native Americans were butchered, forcibly converted, and deprived of their ancestral lands.

America was liberating when it Constitutionally banned slavery.
America was black hearted when, within decades, segregation, and "Jim Crow" laws were,in many locales, the legal norm.

America was virtuous when it entered WWII to liberate Europe & Asia and stop the Axis.
America was disgraceful when,in the same era, it locked up Japanese-Americans in "internment camps", and when in its own military the ranks were still segregated based on race.

America was glorious when it proclaimed "marriage is a fundamental human right right".
America was inglorious when it prohibited intermarriage between Blacks and whites and between christians and non-christians.

America is glorious when it continues to proclaim that "no person may be deprived of life, liberty, or equal protection of the laws".
America is inglorious when it refuses gays and lesbians full and actual equality to enter into marriages.

America is magnificent when it says terrorists shall not cause the US to shy from shining its beacon as a "shining city on a hill".
America is malevolent when it imprisons presumptively innocent persons in black prisons and seeks to euphemistically re-characterize and repackage "torture" as "harsh interrogation".

America is idealistic when it proclaims " Congress (nor the states) shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...".
America is hypocritical when it demands christian prayers in public schools and at public events.

America is exemplary when it asserts "Congress (nor the states) shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech."
America is hypocritical when it lauds the waving of the flag and seeks to criminalize the burning of such.

America is at its most beautiful when it invites, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
America is at its ugliest when it revokes that invite by criminalizing and deporting children whose ONLY "crime" was to be born of parents who hoped to provide their children with an opportunity not afforded the parents merely by virtue of being born under different temporal and geographical circumstances.

America, when it pays mere lips service to and blasphemes its own virtues is a mere bully echoing false bravado, BUT America is grand, glorious, noble, magnificent, exemplary, virtuous, liberating , and GREAT when it lives up, puts into practice, and upholds its ENLIGHTENED IDEALS!

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