My father-in-law, who always owned Airedale terriers, used to say to other members of our family, “My dog is better than yours.” This was partly to annoy us, but mainly expressed what dog owners generally believe, that their dogs are the best. For my part, I know that Boston terriers are the finest dogs in the world.
This is a harmless belief. But it is like another idea, not so harmless – my country is better than yours. The disease of national egotism is especially prevalent in the US. Many Americans appear to take for granted that the US is the greatest country on earth. It seems to be required for every politician to say repeatedly that the US is superior to all other nations. I love my country and would like to live here the rest of my life, but I think this idea is dangerous.
Many white Europeans assumed they and their civilization were so superior to the rest of the world that they had the right to conquer and rule over many other peoples, with genocidal consequences. The Nazis took this belief that their country and their people were better than all others to the extreme of murdering millions of “lesser” people. The belief of white Americans that they were destined to rule over the North American continent led to centuries of violently racist treatment of Native Americans, black African slaves, and non-white immigrants.
Even at a lower level of political rhetoric, as practiced here these days, this claim is unfortunate. It makes people unable to see what is good about other nations. Germany’s public transport is better than ours. The Chinese are more considerate of foreigner travelers than we are. The Dutch are better at learning languages and the French make better coffee. Many nations have made better cars for decades.
Repeating without thinking that “we are the greatest” makes us unable to see what we could learn from others. During the health care debate, I often heard politicians and others say that our health care system is the best in the world. No evidence was ever employed to back up this claim, because it is a natural corollary of the assumption that our country is the best. In fact, every real comparison across nations of health care demonstrates that our system is not close to the best on any measure. The opponents of health care reform consistently refused to discuss why Americans might not be as healthy as people in other industrialized countries.
We also miss what we really do best. Our political system guarantees more personal freedoms and control over our government than nearly all other countries. If this is our claim to greatness, then we have to insure that we maintain our freedoms. We did not do that during recent years, when illegal government surveillance and torture of prisoners became government policy. If America is great, it is not due to some divine blessing, but because of specific features of our nation and our people. Being vague about exactly what those are makes us less likely to do the hard work needed to preserve them. To maintain greatness requires vigilance and action, not just words.
We can say “we are the greatest” as often as we like, but our actions speak louder. If we want to be great rather than just boastful, we must observe our own behavior and that of other nations with an open mind. We can learn much from others. Humility might be a good first lesson.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 25, 2010