Politics and Love

I Love the U.S., and I *Don’t* Think It is the Greatest Country

I remember the year I realize I loved the U.S.

I was teaching U.S. history to eighth grade students[1], and we were reading and discussing the U.S. Constitution together. I remember being struck with the wisdom, elegance, and foresight of this document.

Later that same year, my students and I memorized the preamble of the Constitution together. Every morning, we would recite it: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

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It was studying the Constitution and reciting the lines of the preamble consistently over a period of a few months that really helped me understand the foundational ideals of our country, and that is when I fell in love with it.

Why I Love the U.S.

The United States is not a perfect country, but it was initially founded on the idea of respecting the dignity of all people. These ideas are clearly expressed in our Constitution, and they form the bedrock of our nation.

Granted, we have had to do a lot of work over the years to live up to these ideals. We needed to abolish slavery, give women the right to vote, and pass measures to protect the civil rights of minorities and people who have historically faced oppression. (You can read more about this and the concept of oppression here.) As a nation, we have perpetrated many injustices, but it was the foundational values of respecting all people and treating them with dignity that allowed us to remedy these problems–or try to do so.

We are still working on these justice issues today, and it is still the guiding, foundational ideals of our country that allow us to do this. This only deepens my love and respect for our country.

Given that I love the U.S., it may be surprising to hear that I don’t think we are the greatest country in the world. I also think that proclaiming our greatness and expecting others to do the same undermines the foundational values of our country.

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This painting is by Benjamin West. I really like it because it shows William Penn, A Quaker, establishing a peaceful treaty with the Native-Americans. Penn established a haven for religious freedom and tolerance in Pennsylvania, and he was known for fostering respectful and peaceful relationships with the indigenous people around him.

Why I Don’t Think the U.S. is the Greatest Country in the World

To help explain why I don’t think the U.S. is greatest country in the world and why I think this is an unwise claim to make, I would like to present three related examples for your consideration.

One: Imagine a boy on an elementary school playground who walks around the playground exclaiming that he is the greatest student on the playground. He demands the everyone else acknowledges he is the greatest, too. He threatens to beat up anyone who challenges his claim to pre-eminent greatness.

Two: Imagine a boss who thinks that his company is the greatest. Everywhere he goes, he demands that people recognize its greatness, and he lashes out at anyone who points out any weaknesses about his company or suggests, perhaps, that the company is not the greatest in the world.

Three: Imagine the grandfather of a very large family who constantly proclaims to everyone around him that his family is the greatest in the world, and he becomes enraged at anyone who suggests otherwise.

What is the Problem in All These Examples?

When we imagine the boy, the boss, and the grandfather staking their claim to greatness as they are in the above scenarios, we recognize immediately that there are some significant problems with such behavior. It suggests a problem that l will call a Greatness Complex. A Greatness Complex is a problem someone suffers from when he dwells unduly on his greatness (or the greatness of his company, family, etc.) and demands others do the same. There are many problems that result from a Greatness Complex, but I will discuss three.

One: The Greatness Complex prevents people from actually practicing greatness and, thereby, undermines authentic greatness.

When people fixate on their own greatness and demand that others recognize it, it is a sign that the person is insecure about his own greatness. Now, all of us feel insecure from time to time, and there is no shame in it. It is a human experience.

However, egocentrism, force, arrogance, and bullying are not the solution to the problem of insecurity. If we want to be great, we need to cultivate habits of greatness. Great people don’t proclaim their own greatness and demand that others do the same. They demonstrate their greatness quietly through great actions like respect, courage, service, love, and treating others with dignity.

This is the MO of every great* person in history.

George Washington

Exhibit A: George Washington

And, in fact, when we look at dangerous leaders and criminals in history, we find that almost all of them were fixated on their own greatness and the greatness of their related endeavors. They also usually demanded that other people recognize this greatness.

Mussolini

Exhibit B: Mussolini

Such actions are the exact opposite of authentic greatness, and in fact, a Greatness Complex can undermine the very actions that foster authentic greatness.

Two: The Greatness Complex prioritizes individual over collective greatness and, thereby, undermines authentic greatness.

Hey, did you hear about that guy who won an NBA championship all by himself? How about that guy who won an entire war by himself? Oh, how about that girl who single handedly abolished slavery?

No? Well, don’t feel bad—these people don’t exist. People don’t win NBA championships or win wars or abolish slavery all by themselves. They do it with teams, with armies ands battalions, with groups of like-minded people. While individuals (or individual countries) can certainly accomplish great things by themselves, we accomplish much greater things together.

In fact, even individuals who do great things—like poets, painters, musicians, and inventors—still must rely on the help and support of patrons, mentors, agents, housekeepers, publishers, and friends to nourish their creative genius and bring their work to the world.[2]

Michaelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo

The point is that we need each other, and we are greater together, and that is why the Greatness Complex undermines authentic greatness. It fails to recognize that the more we collaborate with others and nurture our collective greatness, the stronger and greater we are both individually and collectively.

When we try to be Lone Rangers, we undermine authentic greatness, and this is true whether we are talking about people, companies, families, or countries.

Three: The Greatness Complex prevents us from seeing our own needed areas of growth.

It doesn’t matter how great an individual, organization, or country is, people, groups, and countries always have areas in which they need to grow and improve.

Have you ever met a person who refuses to admit his own personal failings and shortcomings? I have.[3] That kind of person is miserable to be around. People, organizations, or countries that refuse to admit that they have areas in which they need to grow often make themselves and the people around them miserable.

On the flip side, most of the inspiring and truly great leaders, companies, and countries constantly engage in the process of self-reflection, growth, and constructive self-criticism.

I would like to examine this fact specifically in the context of United States history. The United States has made some significant mistakes and, as a country, has had some significant moral failings. We killed thousands of indigenous Americans either through disease or slaughter. We enslaved thousands of African-Americans, and it took us hundreds of years figure out this was wrong.

We confiscated the property and interned thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II (many of whose families had lived in the U.S. for years and fought in wars for the U.S.) simply because they were different from us.

The U.S. could have denied these atrocities ever happened. We could have made excuses for our behavior. We could have tried to explain why it was okay to enslave, dehumanize and kill innocent people merely because they were different. We could have tried to justify our actions by appealing to all the other countries doing the same things. (And some people did try to do these things.)

Instead, we admitted that we had made horrible mistakes from ignorance and prejudice. We tried to fix these problems and restored justice to those from whom it had been taken. We are still working to do this today.

Emancipation proclamation

The U.S. did this because in our best moments we understand that authentic greatness does not lie in ignoring mistakes, wrongdoing, injustice, and prejudice. Authentic greatness lies in consistent self-reflection, honesty about failings, and taking responsibility to make the world a better place for everyone.

When we insist on our own greatness at all costs, it blinds us to our own shortcomings, and this undermines authentic greatness.

To Sum it Up

I love the U.S., and I don’t think it is the greatest country in the world, and here is why: Because we have a lot of areas in which we need to grow (like most countries) and because we need other countries and cannot be great alone. In addition, I don’t think we are the greatest country in the world because that is not the point. The point is cultivating habits of greatness, and that leads me to the final part of this post.

What True Patriotism is

In politics recently, a lot of people, including our President, have repeatedly insisted that America is great and demanded that others recognize the same. You can read about a recent example of this here.

The United States (which is one part of America, by the way[4]) has always possessed elements of greatness (like our foundational ideals of dignity and respect), as well as elements of un-greatness (for example, the way we treated and still continue to treat People of Color sometimes. You can read more about this here).

If we are truly great; if we truly love our country; and if we are truly patriotic, we won’t walk around proclaiming our greatness and demanding others do the same. We also won’t shy away from criticism.

True patriotism focuses on acting great instead of proclaiming, demanding, and denying because true patriotism is grounded in love, and love acts wisely, constructively, and virtuously.

Acting great entails respect, courage, service, love, and treating others with dignity. These are the foundational ideals of our country and the ideals that foster its greatness, and they should be the guiding virtues of any leader or person who truly wishes to foster our country’s greatness.

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*By great, I mean someone who makes the world a more just and humane world for everyone (or tries to do this) and supports and teaches others to do the same.

[1] I taught middle and high school students for sixteen years before I went back to grad school and began teaching at the college level.

[2] As an example, I have published three books on logical and critical thinking for middle and high school students. My initial drafts of these books were okay, but my editors were the ones who made them really good books worthy to be used by others. My editors caught my errors, sharpened my thoughts, and clarified my organization. I am a much better writer today because of them and the company that published the books, Classical Academic Press.

By the way, this post is not meant to be an advertisement, but I really believe in teaching logic and critical thinking to as many students as possible. So, if you are interested in such endeavors, the titles of my books are Argument Builder, Discovery of Deduction, and Everyday Debate. You can find them on Amazon, or you can find them at Classical Academic Press.)

[3]  I have actually been this kind of person before, and it made me miserable. You can read more about this here.

[4] America and the United States are not the same thing. The United States is one part of the Americas. This is an important lesson I learned when I was student teaching in Guatemala, and I referred to the United States as America. One of my students graciously pointed out to me that Guatemala was part of America, too. You can read more about this here.

15 thoughts on “I Love the U.S., and I *Don’t* Think It is the Greatest Country”

  1. You made lots of good points here. You are right that greatness is practiced, instead of saying that “I’m the best.” You are right about how well-written the Constitution is. And you are right that there is a lot to be proud of, as well as a lot for our nation to be ashamed of.

    I do think it is worth making a note about the country being founded upon the idea of the dignity of all people. Some were counted as 3/5 as a person (slaves) and many others were not treated as people. I recognize and appreciate the fact that they did allow for amendments to be made, though, so that more and more people can get the dignity under the law they deserve.

    1. Brendan: I really appreciate this thoughtful and gracious comment. I think you make a really important point that it appears that some people were not considered full people when the Constitution was written, and this was definitely reflected in our slavery laws that counted slaves as partial people.

      One of the odd things about our Constitution is that while some of its writers probably didn’t consider People of Color or women full people, this really isn’t detailed anywhere in the Constitution. For instance, there isn’t a part that say, “Oh, and by the way, only white males count as full people.” There are probably parts that imply this but no part that directly states this.

      And I think the reason for this is that a many of the writers did consider everyone as people but were working with other people who were against emancipation and fully suffrage. And I think that even some of the folks who were against emancipation and suffrage felt conflicted about it and knew that there was something wrong with slavery and the oppression of women. So, I think that values of equality and dignity made their way into our Constitution, even though they were not yet fully expressed in society.

      This is underscores, I believe, by the many slaves and suffragettes who appealed to the values in the Constitution to bolster their fight for freedom. This suggests that these values were present in the Constitution and inspired oppressed people in the fight for freedom.

      So maybe what we can say is that our country was founded on ideals of dignity and respect and equality–ideals which it took a lot of people a really long time to understand fully and implement these ideas into society in a consistent way. And we are still working on this.

      1. And thanks for your thoughtful reply!

        You are absolutely correct that outside of slaves, it did not detail whether other people were considered to be fully people or not. Which is one of the things that can make the Constitution amazing to some, perplexing to others possibly–that the Constitution was, is, and will be open to LOTS of interpretation. Based on how the founders acted as they became leaders of the new country, I’m implying that women and other people of color (including those who weren’t slaves), for example, were not viewed as people, even if some of the founders may’ve disagreed with that definition of personhood.

        I will give the founders credit for leaving room for changes in the Constitution, though. Imagine the mess if the country were stuck with no voting rights for women, slaves being 3/5 of a person (and slavery existing), etc.? Thankfully the founders did have the wisdom to leave room for changes, and positive changes at that, by-in-large.

        Regardless of slightly differing interpretations, I definitely agree on the conclusion that the ideals of dignity and respect and equality were central, but of course, who those ideals included changed as we expanded our notions of personhood.

    1. This is so, so sweet. I think that is partially why I write posts like this. I believe we don’t have to keep going in the direction we are headed. We can be kind and compassionate and reasonable.

  2. Great post!!! In a perfect world, I would love for every student in high school or college to have the opportunity to travel abroad for a semester or so. I participated in a study abroad program in Ecuador during my junior year of college, and that experience opened my eyes to a lot of things.

    To critize the U.S. is not saying that you hate the country, it’s saying that you realize country (like most) have problems that need to be fixed. I mean if you have to keep telling people over and over that something is GREAT, then maybe that thing is not so great.

      1. It definately gave me a different prespective on the world, and how US policies affect folks in other countries. One small example. When I was in Ecuador, the country was initiating “dollarization” where Ecuador’s unit of currency, the Sucre, was being phased out for the American dollar. At first, I thought how convenient that I don’t have to worry about exchaning money. Later on, I became aware of how dollarization was s a mechanism of partially erasing this country’s identity. Could you image the rage that would occur if we switched out the US dollar with George Washington for the Canadian dollar with Queen Elizabeth?

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