This post is bound to offend some, but that would be a bad reason not to write it. So, for the record, let me start by saying that I love America and am grateful I was born here and live here.
I was discussing politics and society with someone at work, who said “hey, you should watch the opening scene from HBO’s Newsroom.” It’s been out for a long while, apparently, but I don’t have cable. I looked it up on YouTube and then had to watch it several more times. Hopefully this show will be available on Netflix.
In case you haven’t watched the scene, here’s a brief description: A moderator sits on a stage in what appears to be a university auditorium with three other people: a liberal, a conservative, and a news anchor (sounds like the setup for a joke….). A young woman in the audience asks all three speakers to state briefly why they think America is the greatest country in the world.
I couldn’t help but notice the self-satisfied expression on the moderator’s face after that (“what a good, patriotic question!”). It’s also on the faces of the liberal, who answers “diversity and opportunity,” and of the conservative, who says “freedom and freedom.” The student is obviously pleased with the answers, too. Like she’s patting herself on the head.
However, the anchor (played by Jeff Daniels) looks uncomfortable. He tries for a while to avoid saying what he really thinks, but he eventually lets it out. He goes on a rant, relying on economic indicators and various global rankings to argue that “there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we are the greatest country in the world.”
We used to be, he says. We used to be guided by moral considerations. We produced great things and found cures for diseases. We never beat our chests. We aspired to intelligence and didn’t fear it. We were less frightened because we were informed. The anchor finishes by suggesting we could change what is wrong now, but we have to recognize the problems first.
The looks on the faces of audience members are priceless—when their jaws drop and their faces read “OMG, he didn’t just say that, did he?” (OK, that was my reaction.) The moderator and two other talking heads are stunned into silence (a herculean task, no doubt). Some in the audience look angry, and others are just shocked that he said it out loud.
I realize this is a television program, but a real-life version of this would probably happen the same, with the addition of obnoxious hecklers, or worse. BUT–how likely is it that we will ever hear anything like this from an actual journalist or politician? The anchor hesitates because he knows what he wants to say will be very unpopular and that being honest could cost him. What if advertisers pull their ads from his tv station? What if his bosses fire him to placate an outraged public?
The make-believe facial expressions on those actors help explain why we are unlikely to hear this kind of truth telling. The expressions come from our political culture—good and bad. They show respect for patriotism and love of country, but they also convey uninformed (or poorly informed) self-righteousness and the smug certainty that others will agree on where America stands. This explains the shocked faces when someone dares to challenge the “we’re #1” self-image.
For me, the problem here is not where we rank, although we could do much better. Nor is it that Americans love their country and believe that it’s the greatest. People can believe what they want, but it would be so much better if that belief had more of an objective basis—if people really did live better, longer, healthier lives here in America.
The problem as I see it is the complacency that comes with being self-satisfied. There is also the danger that some part of society has laid claim to the definition of patriotism and equated it with blind, unconditional love.
In our families, we are supposed to love unconditionally because we can’t change or “improve” each other, but we can and should try to improve the place where we live. To do that we have to identify what needs to change and be able to talk about it openly, without self-censorship.
UPDATE: Also, have a look at this Digital Insider post on the book “Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America”: http://diginsider.com/2013/01/01/dream-of-a-nation-inspiring-ideas-for-a-better-america/