“America Is Not the Greatest Country in the World”

A couple weeks ago this short clip from the HBO series, “The Newsroom”, was posted by a couple of my Facebook friends. I’ve never seen the show so I don’t know much of anything about the storyline beyond the obvious. The topic of American Exceptionalism has come up on this blog before and it always seems to bring out emotional responses from my readers and from other bloggers, who can’t understand why I find the whole question of this nation’s exceptionalism to be uninteresting and even meaningless.

I still don’t understand what people find so attractive about this clip. It’s incredibly predictable. In this scene, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, belittles his fellow panelists and the questioner, who asks if they can state in one sentence why America is the greatest country in the world. In his zeal to point out the shallowness of his fellow panelists McAvoy proceeds to offer and even shallower response. America is not the greatest, but it…:

Sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were. And we never beat our chest.

We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars. Acted like men.

We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior.

We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t, oh, we didn’t scare so easy. Ha. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men. Men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?

We lap up this kind of sentimental nonsense that butchers American history even as we complain about videos of college students who can’t remember basic historical facts.

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17 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Nov 19, 2014

    A number of years ago I was reading a poll asking the classic exceptionalist questions about America as uniquely chosen by God. Catholics and Jews weren’t buying, but Protestants agreed that God had the US in mind as a place with a special mission.

  • Jarret Ruminski Nov 19, 2014

    The Shelby Foote comment is always good when it comes to this topic. In a country that’s supposedly the apex of freedom, the fact that we had to fight a war over slavery kinda dampens the whole exceptionalism thing.

    • Jack Nov 21, 2014

      We didn’t HAVE to fight a war over slavery.

  • Ben Allen Nov 19, 2014

    To add some context, Daniel’s McAvoy is a RINO, presumably right of center on the political spectrum. Consequently, it is not surprising that he, too, views the United State’s past sentimentally. If anything, his response is either just as shallow or even slightly less so, especially considering today’s political atmosphere. Some things were better in the past; some things weren’t. That being said, under this superficiality is a layer of truth.

    You should watch it. It is an excellent series. 🙂

  • Matt McKeon Nov 19, 2014

    There was a humor book written in 1941, “See Here Private Hargrove” about what was still the peacetime draftee US Army. One chapter bemoans the lax soldiers compared to the tough guys of World War One. This soft, corrupted youth are the guys we call the greatest generation who were about beat the Nazis and the Japanese into the ground, after surviving the Great Depression.

    Some middle aged guy going on about how they were giants in his day dates back Aristophanes at least.

    • Ken Noe Nov 20, 2014

      And prominent Civil War vets though that the kids who became the tough guys of World War I were so soft that they endorsed college football as the best available alternative to war.

  • msb Nov 19, 2014

    “We never beat our chest” – not very well informed, is he?

  • T.H. Leighty Nov 20, 2014

    I think you just defined American Exceptionalism with your post. The ability and freedom to question.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2014

      That doesn’t make the United States very exceptional in world history.

  • Jerry McKenzie Nov 20, 2014

    From Rick Pearlstein at the end of the interview with Salon’s Thomas Franks:
    Every time a politician stands before a microphone and utters this useless, pathetic cliche that America is the greatest country ever to exist, he’s basically wiping away the possibility that we can really think critically about our problems and our prospects. And to me, that’s tragic.

    • Jimmy Dick Nov 20, 2014

      Well stated. It is sad that none of them can stand there and tell the truth because it would be the kiss of death for a lot of voters who only want to hear certain things.

  • Craig L. Nov 21, 2014

    Have you read The New American Exceptionalism by Don Pease? It was published in 2009, but the essay at the center of it, the middle chapter of the book dealing with Iran’s interpretation of Tocqueville’s sojourn in America, has been extant for twenty years now. My thesis on Emerson was in a certain sense a reply to an essay Pease wrote on Emerson in 1983, so I’ve followed his work for a long while now. He largely anticipated the neocon hijacking of the Bush administration five years before it happened and five years after the Berlin Wall came down. Whether construed as merely prescient or in some sense enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy, his understanding of the doctrine of exceptionalism is deep, broad, coherent, consistent, and fairly compelling. I haven’t yet read the book, but the table of contents and long excerpts from the text are freely available online.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2014

      I am not familiar with it, but thanks for the reference.

  • Craig L. Nov 21, 2014

    Pease argues that Tocqueville defined America’s exceptionalism as the lack of an entrenched feudal aristocracy, a lack the southern states attempted but failed to remedy.

  • R E Watson Nov 21, 2014

    Thanks, Craig. Great line !!!

  • James F. Epperson Nov 24, 2014

    I think it is natural to think your own country is “exceptional” in many ways, but to do so blindly, as though any real criticism is akin to treason, is beyond stupid. To think that any country is somehow anointed by the Almighty is beyond even that.

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