During today’s September 11 remembrances, I heard a man state that no matter how bad things got, “what we have to remember is that we’re the greatest nation on earth.”
It always depresses me to hear people say that. Not, however, because I don’t think America is great. I do. But because it’s precisely that attitude that historically, and to this day, has supported everything about America that is not great.
Yes, we have a great nation. We have considerable personal liberty (though significant aspects of it have been chipped away in the aftermath of September 11). We have a participatory democracy, flawed as it is. We have enormous material wealth, however unevenly it’s distributed and however damaging to the planet its consumption may be. We have an excellent medical system, even if many of our citizens have little or no access to it. We have a history of doing good for other nations (but also a history of bullying, dominating, and invading them). We have legal mechanisms by which to redress our most grievous social malignancies--racism, sexism, and so forth--but we also have no shortage of social malignancies for which legal redress is needed. We have. . . . But need I go on?
The point is, America’s greatness is neither absolute (with respect to some ideal) nor relative (with respect to other nations). We’re neither the only great nation nor the greatest of all nations. When we believe we are--and we’ve believed in our exceptional status from the start, since the Puritans pronounced their colony “a city on the hill,” a God-favored community the entire world would be watching and envying--we authorize the worst excesses of American militaristic, moralistic, and materialistic power. When you believe you’re the greatest, what’s to stop you?
Other than a quartet of renegade planes, that is.
In memory of those who died on September 11, 2001 and the years that followed.