Saturday, February 8, 2014

America Leads In More Than Three Things


A viral YouTube video has been going about that as of this writing is titled, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER...” that came from the 2012 episode of The Newsroom.

But it’s not exactly the most honest one in the world, and I’m not just saying this because I’m an American. But first a disclaimer:

The Disclaimer

It's healthy not to have an inflated opinion of one's own country, and I do not adhere to the idea that we’re the greatest country in the world. I’m also not sure whether America was ever the greatest country in the world. The video has the guy saying, “We didn’t scare so easy.” Really? What about the Red Scare? And when was America’s golden age when we were so great? During the years of slavery? I know, we weren’t the only nation to have slaves back then, but generally overseas slavery was not permanent and hereditary like it was in America. How about when political bitterness got so bad it started a civil war? The idea that America was so great in the past is also repeated by some of my fellow Christians who want to “take back America for God.” But as the Minnesotan Christian pastor Greg Boyd writes:
Was the golden age before, during, or after white Christians loaded five to six million Africans on cargo ships to bring them to their newfound country, enslaving the three million or so who actually survived the brutal trip? Was it during the two centuries when Americans acquired remarkable wealth by the sweat and blood of their slaves? Was this the time when we were truly “one nation under God,” the blessed time so many evangelicals seem to want to take our nation back to?

Maybe someone would suggest that the golden age occurred after the Civil War, when blacks were finally freed. That doesn’t quite work either, however, for the virtual apartheid that followed under Jim Crow laws—along with the ongoing violence, injustices, and dishonesty toward Native Americans and other nonwhites up into the early twentieth century—was hardly “God-glorifying.” (In this light, it should come as no surpise that few Christian Native Americans, African-Americans, or other nonwhites join in the chorus that we need to “Take America Back for God.”)

If we look at historical reality rather than pious verbiage, it’s obvious that America never really “belonged to God.”[1]
Maybe somewhere along America’s history we were the least bad nation, but I’m going to reserve judgment on that. We also have a lot of problems right now that prevent me from saying we’re the greatest country in the world. One is the severity of political bitterness and brinksmanship as illustrated in the 2013 debt ceiling crisis in contrast to the remarkable bipartisan cooperation America saw when it enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Our education system also isn’t nearly as competitive as it should be given our wealth, and the economic mobility in my country is terrible compared to that of other developed countries (like Denmark), making the so-called American dream a bit of a joke. Then there’s the ridiculously high health care costs due to numerous American flaws as mentioned in the video:

How bad is it? In case you didn’t watch the video, a number of governments in the developed world provide (more or less) free health care like Canada, Germany, and Australia, and you might think it’s because those governments tax the crap out of people. But as the video mentions, American taxes spend more on health care per capita than Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Hopefully all that I’ve said above is enough to show that (1) by my lights, whether America ever had a golden age is at best a tad prickly; (2) I am not some jingoist American who believes that America is or ever was the greatest country in the world, which will hopefully make what I’m about to say more credible and less prone to someone misrepresenting me to say that I’m arguing that America is the greatest country in the world.

I say that because when I argued the video was misleading on someone’s Facebook thread, he deleted all of my comments and misrepresented me as saying I was arguing that America is the greatest country in the world, saying something like, “You so rudely barged in and started spouting nonsense about some seemingly arbitrary points of why America is still the greatest country. I GOT NEWS FOR YOU and your arguments:” and then proceeded to attack arguments I didn’t quite make, which is hard for others on Facebook to notice because he deleted the arguments I did make.

Why the Video is Misleading

One reason it’s not quite “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER...” is because it wasn’t quite three and a half minutes, giving a false impression once you see the full clip, but that’s a nitpick. I’ll go into the meatier portions next.

In 1:08-1:13 he says that there “is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.” Now as I said before, I don’t adhere to the view that we’re the greatest country in the world, and I also think that to at least some degree it’s a matter of taste as to what makes for “greatness” in a nation (e.g. does the amount of land or number of people factor into this judgment?). But with all that said, to say that there’s absolutely no evidence is an awfully strong claim that doesn’t bear scrutiny. America is after all the only remaining nation that’s a superpower and we have the greatest GDP. While what makes for greatness is to at least some degree a matter of taste, I think being the only remaining national superpower and being the world’s wealthiest nation counts for something. Just because a belief is false, that doesn’t mean that the evidence for its falsity is completely one-sided, and I don’t believe the case for/against America’s greatness is any exception.

In 1:24-1:33 he says we lead the world in only three categories: (1) number of incarcerated citizens per capita; (2) number of adults who believe angels are real; (3) defense spending. This is misleading in that it’s false. This episode aired in mid-2012, and an article came around about that that time that refuted the idea that America leads in only those three things. We also lead the world in Olympic medals, CO2 emission reductions, per capita worker productivity on a per year basis, research universities (“Starting with Harvard, MIT, and Yale, the United States has 13 of the top 20 in U.S. News’ global rankings”), and generosity. A couple points about the last two things: when it comes to research universities, the U.S. is still doing pretty good; go to this Wikipedia article and click on the black arrows next to “2013” to sort the rankings, and check out how many of the top 20 universities belong to the USA; it’s a pretty high percentage. Also, if one checks out the World Giving Index 2013 report (the most recent report when this was first written, though we've slipped since then[2]), “In 2012, proportionally more Americans gave in some way than in any other country.” We lead the world in a lot more than three things, and some of those things are pretty nice.


Unfortunately all this talk about America’s “greatness” (and I still think it’s too subjective a term to answer that issue objectively) leads to emotional irrationality and people going too far in both directions, like liberals who think America is far worse than it is, and conservatives who think the nation is far better than it is.

Another unfortunate fact about human irrationality is that some people just don’t see things clearly even in regards to what people are claiming, making the irrationality harder to fix. To illustrate, even before a certain individual deleted my comments on Facebook, I had said, “I never said America was the greatest country in the world, but that still does not change the fact that the video is misleading and inaccurate, since we do lead the world in SOME nice things.” His brain had apparently deleted that from his memory when he deleted my comments and said, “You so rudely barged in and started spouting nonsense about some seemingly arbitrary points of why America is still the greatest country. I GOT NEWS FOR YOU…”

When it comes to emotionally heated topics, some people’s brains seem overly fond of finding enemies where none exist, e.g. seeing people not for what they are or what they claim but as people who say or do things they are not actually doing. Predictably, this holds not just in politics but also religion. I’ve seen internet atheists attack the moral integrity of Christian apologist William Lane Craig based on some pretty scanty evidence, such as accusing him of dishonesty as if he couldn’t plausibly be believing the claims he puts forth (and I’ve seen internet atheist do the same to me as well). Maybe some of us think we’re immune, but I think vilifying the opposition is something we should all be careful about doing. I resisted the temptation to think of my Facebook interlocutor as deliberately misrepresenting my views and deliberately destroying evidence that proved him wrong, because I recognize that sometimes people fail to think rationally and fail to see things for the way they are, especially when it comes to emotionally heated topics. That sort of temptation is something we should all be wary of.

[1] Boyd, Greg The Myth of a Christian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007) pp. 98-99

[2] From the 2018 report, among “the countries with the highest average scores over the past five years” the United States went to 2.