A Jewel Among Nations?

Today, on a blog, I wrote a comment castigating a young man for describing America as “….still the greatest country in the world.” Prior to that statement he had gone to some lengths in describing much that was wrong with the “greatest country in the world”, hence the “still” that preceded his remark.

I was, with hindsight, a little hard on him. At least he had the intelligence and thoughtfulness not to support his government’s present policies, unlike many much older than he. It got me musing on the concept of “the greatest country in the world”, and what exactly is determined by that phrase.

One could be forgiven for allowing it to trip off the tongue. After all, it’s hardly new. As a child, I was taught that America was great. I was also taught that Britain was the greatest country with the finest empire, an empire filled with the grateful recipients of Britishness. Fifty years on, it was all a load of what Americans love to call “bullshit”; a political doctrine designed to assuage the masses and disguise the brutish and economic rape of weaker nations overpowered by force of arms.

Websters lists eleven definitions of the word “great”. The first deals with size, so in that sense America could be described as great – though not the great-est” as it is beaten into second* place by Russia.

The second concerns “large in number” i.e. numerous. Well, there’s only one America, but lots of Americans. Perhaps it is the most populous nation? But no, still way behind China and India.

Seven of the other definitions couldn’t even remotely apply, which left two that might just fit the bill. The first was a general term applicable to “greatness”, in the sense that “I had a great time on vacation in America.” Unfortunately, in this context, the word is descriptive of the “time”, rather than the place, and while the place probably would have a bearing on the quality of time spent there, even if the sentence was condensed to simply “America was great”, it only refers to that person’s limited experience of the time spent there, not the country as a whole.

Having whittled down the opposition, we are left with only one possible definition that might fit the context of our phrase, “the greatest country in the world”.

Websters defines “great” as: “markedly superior in character or quality; especially : NOBLE”

Here we run into a serious problem. Is there evidence to support the idea that America is superior in character or quality to every other nation on the planet? The obvious answer, to anyone who’s traveled further afield than the Mexican or Canadian borders, is “No.”

America may have some superior traits compared with certain other countries, but not enough to warrant the title “greatest country in the world”. Other countries are superior to America in many areas where this nation fails to reign supreme.

So, having decided America fails the test, which is the greatest country in the world?

The simple answer is: there isn’t one.

Any independent-minded, seasoned traveler will tell you that each country has its good and bad points. None is superior in all aspects, and certainly there is no such thing as a “noble” nation – the defining adjective for our final definition of “great” as supplied by Websters. In fact, given the politicians and political systems that have developed in most countries, the term “noble” would be laughable were it not for the misery and suffering caused to many of their citizens by laws designed to trap them in poverty and despair. In that league table, America only manages to achieve a place somewhere in the middle, with most of Europe having better social security and health systems than their transatlantic cousin.

Why is it then that the idea of a superior America so readily leaps from American lips, even when their country is living through an era when it is despised by most of the world?

Perhaps it is exactly for that reason – insecurity.

Here, maybe, is an insight into why my young blogger rushed to console himself and his readers after just reeling off a whole list of reasons why America was quite definitely not “the greatest country in the world”.

He needed to reassure himself that, in spite of all, maybe, just maybe, it could be one day.

* NOTE: In fact, measured by geographical size, the US ranks fourth, behind Russia, Canada, and China. My thanks to Sister Anan for pointing out the error.

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8 Replies to “A Jewel Among Nations?”

  1. (ahem) I believe that Canada is generally supposed to take the second-place position for geographical ‘greatness’. The fact that nobody wants most of it is completely irrelevant!

  2. Anan – you are quite right. Thanks for spotting the error. I could say I was trying not to deflate American egos too much, so chose to rank the US second rather than fourth – but I’m not that sensitive! It was a simple error, now noted on the page. Thanks again.

  3. There is nothing noble about a country as a whole, but there are indeed noble people within it. I think blind nationalism the young man must have been puffed up about, is probably a very dangerous state of mind – here, in the UK, Germany, any country.

  4. Well, I happen to be that young man you so kindly castigated, so naturally, I have a few things to say.

    Blind or misplaced nationalism? I think not. A meaningless euphemism? Maybe. Mr. Adams looking a little too far into what I said? Most definitely — but I do understand where you were going with it and why you did.

    Is America really the greatest country in the world? I’m twenty years old, and haven’t made it any further than Canada to check out a little waterfall. In reality, my judgments only come from my readings, from my professors who have traveled the world, and what I’ve learned by reading CNN every morning (Sweden and Norway seem like other great places, eh?). Does that give me the right to say that there is nowhere else I’d rather live than America? I’m not sure really, but I can read and learn about drugs without trying them and know that I’d be happier without them. Bad comparison, sure, but you get the point.

    America is great, though. Greatest? You’re right, there in reality, there isn’t a greatest at all, mostly because labeling a country “great” is as subjective as giving that label to a certain type of pizza… and plus, there isn’t a World Committee to Define a Nation’s Greatness (yet). Like every country, the US is plagued with its major faults, but there are plenty of aspects to find great about it: the schooling (168 of the top 500 universities in the world are in the US, at least according to this group of researchers in China), the wide variety of people and cultures, the massive film industry, a 98-99% literacy rate, and the government also spends more money on health care than other any country (but the downfall is that there still isn’t universal coverage, but it’s a hot topic, and it’s something I expect within the next decade). I could think up of plenty of other things that make American great — and, of course, on the other side of the coin, I could think up plenty of what makes American not so great, so in the end, it’s a losing battle and all comes down to an educated opinion, even if my opinion isn’t as quite as “educated” as others (in which I say, give me time, I’m not even out of school yet).

    Maybe I should watch my words. I probably should have just said: “America is still a great country,” and by nearly any definition of great I can think up, that holds true.

  5. PM – I agree totally with the first sentence of your comment. Noble people can be found in every country; noble nations – definitely not. I also concur with your view that blind nationalism is probably one of the most dangerous traits to rear its ugly head in any country. Normally, if I stumble on that type of opinion I shake my head in disgust and move on. Responding is a waste of time as there is no way to permeate the minds of such blinkered individuals. This was different. The writer was obviously an intelligent, thinking, individual who was prepared to recognize and accept his nation’s shortcomings as well as what he considered were its assets. My intention was to have him consider the implications of the superlative he used with particular regard to the rest of the planet. Judging by his response below your comment, I believe I succeeded.

    Jonathan – first, let me welcome you to Sparrow Chat.

    Your response to my slightly ill-mannered intrusion onto your friend’s blog – in order to respond to a comment you had already made, rather than anything she had written – I found both stimulating and thought-provoking. That you understood my intention, especially so.

    I note that you have modified your opinion from ‘greatest in the world’ to just ‘great’. You explain your reasoning for so doing succinctly and with transparency. Then you ask if it gives you the right to “….say that there is nowhere else I’d rather live than America?”

    It does, without question.

    It also illustrates the subjectivity behind your reasoning. I’m not suggesting for one moment that is a bad thing, merely that it is not an objective viewpoint. Your twenty years experience of living in America, analyzing for yourself the negative and positive aspects of your country, has led you to the opinion that for you, America is a great country to live in.

    However, when analyzed on a global basis, there are countries with better overall education systems (America may have the largest proportion of quality universities, but what proportion of its population cannot afford to utilize them?); better overall healthcare systems, and an overall better quality of life than many have in America.

    Now, I realize it could be argued that this is my turn to be subjective, but the real issue with America is this: all the power for good in this country flows from the top down but is recycled before it reaches the bottom. In other words, there is huge wealth here, more than enough to enable everyone to have a reasonable standard of living, adequate healthcare and a good education, but that wealth is locked up in the top tiers of society and never reaches those at the bottom who really need it. Jonathan, you say you have high hopes of healthcare for all within the decade – so did Americans in the 1990’s when Clinton came to power and Hilary swore to provide healthcare for every American. She tried. What happened? The big drug and insurance companies clamped down on her and refused to allow it. Clinton could do nothing because the multi-nationals and corporations fund the American government – both parties. I sincerely hope you get your healthcare for all within the decade, but I can almost guarantee you won’t.

    One of the major problems throughout the world is the American ‘system’. The ‘wealth pyramid’ effect of American capitalism – where money is drawn from the bottom of the pyramid to the top without being adequately recirculated – is spreading throughout the planet. Instead of the poorest people of the world gradually improving their lot, aid money is circulating among the top echelons of third world nations (in exchange for favors rendered to corporations and western governments) with little reaching those who need it most. America is the driving power behind this corruption in the world, when its status as the most powerful nation could allow it to do so much good.

    Other western countries are not free of blame, but America is in the driving seat.

    This is why the hairs on the back of my neck have a habit of rising whenever I hear America described as “the greatest country in the world”.

    One thing is for sure, the future lies with you and your generation. You will have nothing to thank my generation for. We’ve done little in the past half century to improve the lot of the human race, but much to further the disruption of the planet you inherit.

    We did manage one great leap forward. We invented the Internet. No longer do we have to rely on biased news media (CNN – oh, Jonathan, you can do better than that!) for our knowledge of the world and its people. We can talk with them direct.

    Please feel free to express your views on Sparrow Chat whenever you feel the need, Jonathan. You’ll always be welcome.

  6. Sara – thank you. He’s a good thinker and a decent man. I enjoyed the ‘conversation’. America needs more like him.

    Flimsy – a terrific article. I was in accord with 95% of it. Many thanks for bringing it to my attention. Anyone wishing to peruse this review of three books on the issue of Europe vs America – and it makes interesting and informative reading – can find it HERE.

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