Greatness is achieved, not declared

July 5, 2012


Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?

The question proceeds of course, from an assumption, i.e., that America is, indeed, the greatest nation on Earth. When it is posed by a chipper college student to Will McAvoy, the dyspeptic cable news anchor played by Jeff Daniels in the new HBO series “The Newsroom,” he gores that assumption with acid glee.

By no standard — or at least, no standard he cares to acknowledge — does McAvoy believe America is still the world’s greatest nation. Freedom? That’s hardly unique, he says, noting that Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan are all free. And he ticks off a number of other measures — literacy, life expectancy, math, exports, infant mortality — by which, he says, America now lags much of the world.

Therefore, he says, America is, in fact, not the greatest nation on the planet. There is something telling and true in the crestfallen expressions with which the audience greets that declaration. It’s as if someone has switched off the sun.

America believes in nothing quite so deeply as its own greatness.

There is something quintessentially us about that belief. The Japanese, we may presume, love Japan. Surely the Canadians feel a swelling pride at the sight of their flag and the Spanish stand a little straighter at the playing of their national anthem. But does any other nation feel the need to so routinely assure itself and remind others that it is the most excellent of them all?

“America,” says Sean Hannity with numbing regularity, is “the best, greatest nation God has ever given man on the face of the Earth.” It might be said, that the seed of American greatness lies in the very need to be great, to raise the foam index finger and chant “USA! USA!” — to live up to our own self-image.

Unfortunately, the seed of American self-delusion lies in the same place. To read the test scores, to watch the clown show that passes for TV news, to walk the boarded up streets of downtown Wherever, USA, to talk to a father about his kids’ future, is to take the fictional news anchor’s point:

Namely, that there is something sad about yelling, “We’re No. 1!” when you are, in fact, not.

But — and a character on the show reminds McAvoy of this — we can be, always. The potential of it lies in America’s endless capacity for reinvention, the path to it in America’s matchless sense of mission. The nation has always risen to the challenge of greatness when it had a goal, a purpose to unite behind, a thing to get done. That is the story of the Revolution, the Union victory, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the Civil Rights Movement, the moon landing.

So what is our mission now? What is the goal toward which we strive in 2012? And therein lies the problem: you don’t know either, do you? Bill Clinton did mention something about a bridge to somewhere or other. George W. Bush was handed a mission — fighting terrorism — on a golden tray and bungled it. President Obama, unlike candidate Obama, has yet to articulate a goal that excites and unites.

Like a knife’s blade, greatness requires a whetstone to sharpen itself against. No whetstone presents itself in a nation where, as McAvoy notes, people define themselves by who they voted for in the last election, a nation whose depth of division and lack of unifying principle now poison the very air, a nation where, to speak of greatness is, increasingly, to speak of history.

But what of the future?

That will require mission and purpose, the realization that who we are is bound up in the things — audacious and spectacular things — we come together to get done. We ought to spend more time deciding what those things will be, and less reassuring ourselves of our own wonderfulness.

True greatness, after all, is not declared. It is achieved.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

Despite this vacuous column and whatever HBO drivel currently fouls our system of fiber optic cables, the United States of America is without a doubt the greatest country in the world. Just ask the tens of thousands of people who are waiting to become American citizens or, especially, those who travel here for medical treatment they can't get in countries that have socialized medicine.

Pitts's views on America are apparently shared by his pal, Chris Rock:


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

"the United States of America is without a doubt the greatest country in the world."

So declares cato.

beatrice 5 years, 11 months ago

Pitts must share views with the comedian Chris Rock ... I mean, they are both black and all, so they must share the same views.

JustNoticed 5 years, 11 months ago

You and your ridiculous quotation marks are unreadable. And I really didn't even read the above. It's just not worth the trouble.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

And Bozo the America-hater disagrees with me. So what else is new.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

Why, yes, anyone who doesn't fall into goose-step with your ideology must be an America-hater-- you have so declared, so that makes it so.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

Not so. There's a difference between constructive disagreement and "fundamentally changing America," and you belong in the latter group - along with the individual currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

Yes, you'd very much like to see this country become much more like imperial Rome-- that would be a very fundamental change, indeed.

Getaroom 5 years, 11 months ago

Despite what cato__ has to say, the stats don't lie. America is losing it's grip and hanging on by it's finger nails to The Worlds Greatest Nation status. Pitts is right on with this article and assessment. All Empires fail and when the balance shifts to the top, the top falls. The greedy inherit what, rubble? In time, there is not enough padding, even for the super rich to break the pain of the fall from their Ivory Towers.
Breitbart is dead and who cares about all that drivel? Oh, I guess cato_the_elder does. Watch out, it might kill you too.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 11 months ago

I had thought that threats were prohibited on this site.

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 11 months ago

I would say that Pitts makes a lot of good points and expresses the sentiments of a lot of Americans. Certainly, most Americans wish we could stop arguing and actually unite around a good cause other than launching an army to find WMDs that don't exist in a country where we had no reason to be and spending $1 Trillion on two wars that nobody wanted or needed and getting caught up for 10 years in arguments that only Lawyers could ever possibly dream would make any sense or accomplish anything at all.

How did we get here?

Ask Karl Rove, Limbaugh, Hannity, the Koch brothers and all the other self-centered egomaniacs that have been turning Americans against each other instead of finding ways to solve problems in this country.

verity 5 years, 11 months ago

Why do we feel the need to be the "greatest"? I think that says a great deal about our insecurity right there. And if we are the greatest, we don't need to keep saying it---it will be obvious.

Each of us needs to try to be the best that we can be, to be in competition with ourselves and not always trying to feel superior to others.

To be the best that we can be, we have to cooperate with others. Working together, we get so much more done and are so much more creative than working against each other and being jealous of each other's achievements.

ST3V3N 5 years, 11 months ago

Yay, I knew if I kept reading I would find someone with some heart. Most of the coments here are self centered and self serving. This is the attitude and the problem.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 11 months ago

I have a theory. I don't know for certain if it's true, though I suspect that it is.

More people from Ireland come here than Americans go to Ireland. More people from China come here than Americans go to China. And we can say the same thing for every country on the planet. Whether or not the U.S. is the best country, people around the world appear to be voting with their feet.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

I'm more interested in whether or not we're living up to our fundamental values and principles as a nation, and solving our many problems, than comparing us to other nations.

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 11 months ago

It stems from a kind of arrogance that is increasingly inappropriate in the interconnected world we now live in. Americans need to learn how to be humble and that requires education about other cultures and ethnic groups. That is a tall order for narrow minded conservatives.

A similar kind of arrogance exists in every country but it is very inappropriate when you are trying to be viewed as a global leader that is setting an example and not someone who simply wants to be feared as an aggressive country with the worlds most powerful arsenal of weapons.

And then we wonder why nobody loves us, just tolerates us.

Alyosha 5 years, 11 months ago

Why use the term loosely? Obama was duly elected by a majority of Americans. This comment is evidence of a radical perspective that undermines the rule of law.

beatrice 5 years, 11 months ago

Why can't I "like" a comment 100 times?

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

Why can't you "dislike" a comment even one time is what you should be asking.

beatrice 5 years, 11 months ago

Obama is in his element and far from being in over his head. He accomplished what other presidents have been trying to accomplish for a century, which is, making access to health care affordable for a large percentage of the population that was not previously covered. President Obama accomplished it. He also kept us from falling into a Depression and kept a major portion of the American auto industry from going under. He oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, which is something our last President was unable to accomplish. He assisted in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi without the loss of American lives or committing ground troups. He ended the war in Iraq.

He definitely is in his element, and very possibly just getting warmed up. However, should Mitt Romney be elected in November, Obama's accomplishments will have a positive, lasting influence.

And your argument is not made stronger by your name calling. It only speaks to your inability to speak like an adult. You now allow yourself to be defined by what party you vote for, and that is just sad.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 11 months ago

I am horrified that you would write those things about Alyosha that is just uncalled for and you owe her an apology.

tomatogrower 5 years, 11 months ago

What would be wrong with being a great nation, and not the greatest. It's the greatest, because it's our home, not because we are competing with other nations. Whenever I travel outside the country, and despite how wonderful the place was which I visited, I always get exited when I see the American flag, and I know I am home.

Our country has done many things to embarrass their citizens and supported leaders who haven't followed our values. And, yes, we do need to apologize when we make those mistakes. Apologizing for making a wrong decision is a sign of strength and humility, not a sign of weakness. I hate working with people who try to hide their mistakes, make lame excuses, or try to blame others. They are low lives. I do not want our country to be low life.

As to a goal. I think we are like a marriage. We are past the honeymoon period. We are realizing we have some different needs, and we must bargain to get those needs. We need to come together to work on compromising to meet everyone's needs, instead of saying "If I don't' get my way it's a divorce". Truly committed people do that. The nature of a marriage changes over time. It's never the same as when you first marry. One of my needs is to make our people (all citizens) the top priority. That means creating jobs for them, and maybe in lean times cutting off some friends overseas. I am not an isolationist, but if you can't afford to entertain them, you shouldn't. Pay your own bills first. Take care of your own family first. And it's better not to get involved with other's marriages divorces (countries' civil wars). It only makes enemies of both sides.

verity 5 years, 11 months ago

"Apologizing for making a wrong decision is a sign of strength and humility, not a sign of weakness."

Just wanted to repeat that.

mycatsrightorwrong 5 years, 11 months ago

It's called collective narcissism, where a group of people gain esteem/confidence from their membership in an organization/group. That said, as the first modern democracy, the leading economic power, a bastion of free speech, a laboratory of multicultural co-existence, home of the double whopper, and location of megan fox's body, I'd say we've gotta damn good argument we're the greatest nation the world's ever seen.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Well, we're not really the leading economic power anymore, free speech rights (and other constitutional rights) are under attack, our mutli-cultural co-existence isn't working as well as I'd like, Mcdonald's is an embarrassment.

You've got a point with Megan Fox though :-)

mycatsrightorwrong 5 years, 11 months ago

you somehow made no accurate points.... America is the leading economic power by a large margin (#1 gdp), leader in free speech (even our corporations have 1st amendment rights, & we have zero hate speech laws), we or brazil are the most diverse (a majority of american babies born today are minorities), & the whopper is from burger king.

if you wanna be a contrarian, try to know anything about the topic before you comment. That post was embarrassingly stupid

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

I suppose it depends on how one defines leading power economically, but we manufacture very little, have huge debt and deficits, trade imbalances, etc. I'd say China's doing quite a bit better than we are economically.

Being the most diverse isn't a sign of success at living together with other ethnic groups - that was my point, which you apparently missed. We seem to have rather a large problem co-existing peacefully in this country, given high crime rates.

You could be right about free speech - there was just an interesting court case about that.

Oh my goodness - I got McDonald's and Burger King mixed up - either one is an embarrassment, and very largely responsible for the obesity epidemic and lousy health of many people - hardly something to be proud of, in my view.

camper 5 years, 11 months ago

I think America is the best place on the planet. But my confidence is tested more now. I can see why other peoples see us as a greedy nation. Like our corporations, things are often measured by growth, by profit. We do not seem to care for limitations and sustainability until the bubble bursts.

Steinbeck was right in his belief that success is often also the cause of demise.

beatrice 5 years, 11 months ago

Belief in American Exceptionalism is a belief in not needing to try in order to be great. Accepting that America is not exceptional is the only path to again being exceptional.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 11 months ago

The talking head conservatives and the Tea Party have hijacked the American exceptionalism argument. And the neocons have fanned it to believe that we are better than anyone else and we have to attack everyone else. Pitts uses it as the typical progressive metric that we cannot be good anough unless every speck of disadvantage, disproportion, and assumed injustice is rectified. If even one obese, yet poor person remains then America is not great. This cannot lead anywhere but in communism, since someone will always have more than someone else (and yes even in communism). True American exceptionalism is based on Jefferson's "American Experiment" of self government. There was something there that was truly unique. And we haven't seen it in one hundred years, or at least since the Sixteenth Amendment legalizing the income tax. Representive government, a weak Executive, not a king, a Senate elected by State reps, not the people. Unique stuff. We are a shadow of that today. The fact that Jefferson called it an experiment showed its tenuous nature. And we likely lost it long ago.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

I think you rather overstate Pitts' position.

Saying we're not the "greatest country on earth", and pointing out numerous problems and injustices in our society in no way equates to saying we can't be "good enough" unless we're perfect.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 11 months ago

Although the conservatives like to channel Reagan, it was refreshing to watch Reagan always refer to America as the city on the hill, someplace that people wanted to go to. In Pitts world, no one would want to go to it, or at least to the underbelly of America. With his City on a HIll metaphor, Reagan would be resolutely for amnesty for illegals, and more open borders, and would likely not be nominated or elected today.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Few people want to go to the "underbelly" of this country, in fact.

Many want to escape that part of it, though.

beatrice 5 years, 11 months ago

Do you stomp your little feet when you type?

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

No. That is wrong. This country was founded by Americans. They weren't geniuses, They were as smart as us. But they were willing to argue and fight until America became soverign.

These days we are no longer American, but liberals and conservatives. Both sides are as wrong as they are right. Conservative vagina legislator is no better than the nanny-state college boy telling people what they can and can't do on there own property. Same coin, different sides with equally repugnant oppressions.

Fortunately, as long as those idiots are arguing with each other, they have less time to do actual harm to our country (like passing anti-gay marriage amendments or criminalizing Coca Cola).

The true genius of The Constitution was creating favorable conditions for our government to always be at war with itself and not us. You or I could have come up with that.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

I think the founders were largely much smarter and more well educated than most Americans these days, unfortunately.

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

For every smart and well-educated founding father, there was a thousand equally smart and educated men that wanted no part of America and were happy to serve the king.

That suggests that mere intelligence or education was not the driving force that founded America.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Never said it was.

"They weren't geniuses, they were as smart as us".

These days, that's just not true - most Americans are less intelligent and less well educated than the founders, in my opinion.

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

"Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?"

The Constitution.

camper 5 years, 11 months ago

I agree, especially about creating favorable conditions. But I think America has been polarized (Conservatives and Liberals) for a long time. For instance, the bickering going on right now is very similar to what was going on in the 1930's. The Republicans were obstructionists to FDR (especially in his 2nd term), then you had the Beat generation, John Birch Society, Civil Rights movement, McCarthyism (heck they even pegged Ike as a commy), the hippies (most of whom are now conservative Right wingers now). Times might not have changed as much as we think.

One thing I will never forget is one who told me what he remembered when JFK was assasinated, it was that he heard cheering when it came over the loudspeaker. This was Johnson County, KS. Things were maybe even worse than the things I see on this board now.

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

Yeah, we are ginned up to the brim with hatred thanks to wedge issues. We should disagree vigorously, and maybe even throw a fist or two, but we shouldn't hate people because of what they think. We've grown way too used to doing that.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Other countries have constitutions.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Then, you'd have to amend your statement that our constitution is what makes us the "greatest country in the world".

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Because others have constitutions, so it's not having one that makes us that, if we are in fact.

It would be, or include the ability to "defend" it, whatever that means.

yourworstnightmare 5 years, 11 months ago

Agreed. The constitution ensures that we always have the potential for greatness.

Mike Ford 5 years, 11 months ago

boa and false using words beyond their intelligence......priceless....

Liberty275 5 years, 11 months ago

tuschkahouma not knowing how to use an ellipsis... old news.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

Everybody should read the link BAA posted, and contemplate the vast difference between what Ms. Perry said, and how BAA portrayed it.

This is the sort of thing that makes me deeply concerned for our future, that people can't even read and understand something first, but rather impose their own view on it before even understanding it.

jafs 5 years, 11 months ago

I'm sorry you can't read the speech without imposing your views on it.

She criticizes the country in some ways, and celebrates it in others - that's a far cry from your presentation.

Your example about your sister is a great one - what's wrong with seeing the ways in which she can/should improve? If she's overweight, she should lose some weight, if she doesn't take good care of her children, she should take better care of them, etc.

It's not always the case - there are those who understand my arguments, and disagree - you used to be somebody like that, but things have changed, and now you misrepresent what I'm saying, fail to understand it, and argue with things I haven't said.

What do you think is the right approach to slavery, the denial of rights to women and minorities, etc.? Should we just "love" America without noticing those issues, or "love" them as well? I say we should look at ourselves objectively, which includes our strengths and weaknesses, our good and bad attributes, without glossing over the negative or ignoring the positive aspects.

Then we can indeed try to improve where it's needed.

bad_dog 5 years, 11 months ago

"(Two last names always connotes liberal ideology)"

You mean like Sherriene Jones-Sontag?

Holy hyphenated bat-name! You better send an alert to Cedar Crest!.

Sorry, can't help with your sister...

camper 5 years, 11 months ago

I did not realize that only liberals have hyphenated last names.

notaubermime 5 years, 11 months ago

I went back and read the link and was amazed by how good it actually was. I think that it actually contradicts Pitts in that it points to what actually is great about this country. There is a pervasive, almost ingrained optimism and hope. It makes me think of the scores of immigrants who came to this country with hope and not much else. I think that the true shame comes as Pitts pointed out: when the hope fails to translate into action or worse, when assumption replaces striving.

As for BAA, I think it should be obvious now that this person lacks the ability to see the world in shades of grey. Everything is either all good or all bad. Pointing out any of America's mistakes is bad, and therefore anything which comes from it is bad. To some extent, I think that we all share the tendency to tune-out and reject commentary which points out our flaws and failures. What is different about BAA (at least with regard to you and I) is the degree to which this personal defensiveness has been translated to what this person regards as the rightful authority of this country.

notaubermime 5 years, 11 months ago

Nope, but I am sure that is what you tell yourself.

P Allen Macfarlane 5 years, 11 months ago

Most of the comments I am reading here make great entertainment.

To those of you providing the entertainment: Thank you for sharing: your intolerance, your view of the world as you see it through your brand of rosy colored glasses, and your general lack of civility that borders on personal attack.

Maddy Griffin 5 years, 11 months ago

17th in education, 37th in health care world wide.Greatest? Maybe the military. I'm happy with great, I don't need the U.S.A. to be the greatest.

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