A little break from the normal writing today to address something that’s been on my nerves for quite some time.
It’s the word: GREAT.
Specifically, it’s how that word is used in reference to our country.
Our country is great.
Our country is the greatest country in the world.
It’s a word that’s used so much that we don’t even think about it any longer. I find it hard to believe that the people using the once great word great to describe our country actually know what the word means, or what using the word implies about the noun it modifies. At the very least, it seems that anyone using the phrase, “The USA is the greatest country in the world” is employing an incredibly loose definition of the word “great.”
Those of you who would suggest that my calling into question the statement itself is somehow treasonous or unpatriotic: back off.
I don’t hate the United States. I love my country. I’m lucky to be me. I have all sorts of freedoms that other people around the world lack. I’m more privileged than a large percentage of the world. My father is a Disabled American Vet who served in Vietnam in the middle of his twenty year army career (he served under six US Presidents, from Eisenhower to Carter). I myself was brought up to respect my country. I learned about our constitution in school and about loving God and Country on my way to earning my Eagle Scout badge. In many ways, I live the American Dream. I own a big white farmhouse with a picket fence. I have a lovely wife and kick-ass daughter. I have a beagle. I don’t want to move anywhere else. But can I honestly say my country is the greatest country on the planet?
No. Right now, in the midst of this idiotic debt mess, I have a hard time wondering how we can even be in the top ten of world’s great countries. Sure, all countries have problems, but is there one aspect of our country that isn’t in trouble?
Economically, we are screwed. My grandkids will be paying off the intrest on our debt.
Educationally, everyone seems to think we’re screwed. Our kids aren’t placing in the top categories any longer. We’re falling behind everywhere. No one reads books. Books! People! We can’t be a great country if people don’t read books! I teach students who’ve never read a book in their lives! How scary is that? How can any generation anywhere be “great” without books (or, at least their digital editions)?
Medicine? Some people might spin it that we have the best health care in the world, but I know many people that were socked into debt because of medical issues beyond their control. How is that “great.”
Corporate Profiteering? All those companies not making anything in the US? How does that make us great? We can buy cheap jeans, but only because we let the populations of poorer countries work for peanuts in unsafe conditions. Are we great because our sneakers are made by near-slave labor? Or does that make us blind and self-centered?
Banks? Please. I downgrade us to “poor” because of our banks. Can any reasonable person believe these fat-cat institutions make us great?
Environment? Don’t even try to tell me we aren’t a major contributor to global warming. Don’t try to convince me that there is no global warming. I downgrade us to “poor” simply because we let the corporations “buy” their science. The vast majority of scientists are telling us that we are wrecking the planet. If the vast majority (not a tiny majority, but say, 10,000 to 1) of doctors told me I had cancer, would I be “great” if I ignored them and said I wanted to trust the voodoo man who said I had evil spirits?
Wars? An overtaxed military? Bickering assholes in our government? Hate everywhere? Elected officials shot at campaign rallies? Little girls killed by psychopaths with access to guns? A distrust of the experts in science and health and nutrition? Intellectuals made into demons? And LIES in the news every day! Lies from our leaders! More poor. Less upward mobility? Hungry kids? Intolerance of every type? Violent intolerance? Criminal intolerance? More debt, both personal and country-wide? Less healthy food? Overwhelming lack of civility and decorum in nearly all forums (and I’m not talking about standing on ceremony–I’m speaking about simply being courteous in our affairs)? Stressed families? Overworked parents? College kids that don’t know what they’re spending tuition for–the liberal arts education is derided and the jobs are absent upon graduation?
How in the world does any of this add up to the “greatest country in the world.”
Because we are free? Because our founding fathers gave us these incredible documents as a framework for a nation?
Having a framework does not make us great. That’s like saying, “Custer had a great battle plan. He was the greatest general ever.” Well, maybe, but he still got his ass handed to him at Little Big Horn. So, maybe he wasn’t so great then.
We aren’t great now.
Maybe we were once. Or maybe we’re only great because we say we’re great. Hey, look at us! We saved the world in WWII! Aren’t we great? What’s that old phrase?
The proof is in the pudding? Yes, that’s the one. Where’s the pudding, America?
Imagine if I stood at the front of my local grocery store on a busy Friday afternoon and proclaimed myself to be the greatest person in the supermarket simply because I’d been given a good foundation and framework. Without any proof of my “greatness,” I’d be laughed at. Plus, I’d look like a douchebag.
Hello! As a country, we’re standing at the front of the supermarket and shouting that we’re the greatest country in the world. Imagine being back by the deli-counter and hearing some jerk telling everyone how much better he is than you? All you wanted to do was buy some honey-roasted turkey and get ready for the weekend and here comes Johnny I’m Great to rile you up. How would you view him? I say, if he shouts like a douchebag, acts like a douchebag, and shits like a douchebag, then maybe he’s a…?
I’d love to see us actually be “Great.” But that means we have to get to work. We have to work together. We have to get dirty and sacrifice some of the things we think are important. I’d love for my kick-ass daughter to grow up and be able to say “I live in a great country.” And mean it. But are we giving her a great country? Can we? Or is that a pipedream?
All I can do is tend my own garden. Keep my head out of the larger mess. Love my family and friends. Sweep my sidewalk. Wave to my neighbors. Help them when they need help. Let the chips fall where they may as the leaders bicker over financial numbers that mean less the more I hear about them. Stay out of all that spurious business and hope we muddle through somehow.
Great is such a hard road to travel. Are we tough enough for that journey? If not, let’s back off of the hyperbole, okay? We’re a good country, or we are “a” country, or we are “one” country among many across the globe. If we can’t actually be “great,” at least lets be truthful about what we are.