The premiere episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new drama series The Newsroom (HBO) opens with a real bang. It does so by sacrificing a sacred cow held by many Americans: the belief that the United States is ‘the greatest country in the world’.

This idea is so commonplace as to be ubiquitous. It isn’t enough for most Americans to know that their country is great; it must be thought of as the greatest, and at he who admits anything less, the charge of being unpatriotic is thrown more often than not. Someone who does not believe that America is the greatest country in the world may as well be burning the flag. Such people – like Sorkin himself this week – are routinely told to simply leave the country if they don’t like it, as if all of America’s problems are the result not of failure to deal with them but of all those pesky people pointing them out.

As an immigrant here, I am one of the minority of ‘Americans’ (I’m not yet a citizen) who chose this country actively, rather than being here by default. So, it should come as no surprise to anybody that I possess a high opinion of the United States and its people. So much so that I wanted to be one of them! Not only that, but I’ve always felt that the ideals of the United States stand alone as the greatest, most moral political ideals ever put into practice. A couple of hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers began an ambitious experiment in liberty and equality and justice. I still think these early blueprints for a great country stand America in wonderful stead today, and the closer the nation’s people stick to them, the better off they tend to be. Unfortunately they haven’t done so in all cases.

The Newsroom’s lead character, news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), answers a question about America’s greatness by dropping this bomb:

“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”


Actually, I’ve made this very same point to challenge the chest-pounding arrogance I’ve detected in some of my opponents in political debates over the years. We’re using a quo modus argument, if you will, daring to ask, ‘By what measure do you claim that America is the greatest country in the world?’ The claim of being greatest entails comparison. If something is the greatest thing in its category, then it is the greatest in comparison to the rest. If America is the greatest country in the world, then by definition it is greater than all of the other countries on earth. But by what measure can it be claimed that America is greater than all other countries on earth?

Unfortunately, the claim is difficult to substantiate, empirically. By the measure of its citizens’ level of education, America is not greater than 20 other countries (1). By the quality of overall health of its citizens, it is not greater than 36 other countries (2). By the prosperity of its citizens, it is not greater than 6 other countries (3). By the United Nations Human Development Index, it is not greater than 3 other countries (4). By other indices of happiness, it never makes the top spot, which is a shame given the high value assigned to the pursuit thereof by its founders (5). Even on measures close to the American ideal such as personal freedom and privacy, America since 2001 has been losing ground (again, arguably as the result of ignoring the advice of its founders by sacrificing liberty to achieve security, of which Ben Franklin’s is most easily called to mind).

The other part of McAvoy’s appraisal of his country’s greatness (or lack) implies three criticisms of modern-day America: that it imprisons too many of its own citizens, that its people believe too many primitive religious ideas and that it spends an outrageous amount of money on war. These are good points, if being subject to the criticism that they are matters of opinion rather than of fact.

All of this paints a rather bleak picture, no?

Perhaps. And yet I don’t feel that way about America. I moved here after 9/11. Why, you might ask, if liberty and privacy here aren’t what they once were? And why, if the United Kingdom – my country of birth – ranked higher in some of the measures of greatness (though lower in others)?

It’s difficult to explain, except to say that the United States still possesses for me the promise, the spirit and the essence of greatness. I feel more alive here than anywhere else. America’s opportunities – although stunted by the results of some stupid policies – are still vast. It is dynamic, dramatic, exciting. People are still building and innovating. Fortunes are still being made and lost. People of all colors, cultures, backgrounds and values have been hastily mixed together in this great melting pot, with a blindingly awesome spectrum of results, as well as many terrifying ones. Life, warts and all, happens here with gusto.

Sorkin’s opening shot in The Newsroom is a tough pill for Americans to swallow: that America is not, on paper, the greatest nation on earth. And it isn’t. But America may be better off without its claims of greatness anyway. I’ve often thought that one important aspect of greatness is humility about the fact. Maybe it’s naive to think so, but perhaps a key to restoring America’s position in the world may lie in accepting that it still has work to do.

By embracing the United States of America as it is, instead of what we’re pretending it is, Americans can honor the values of their nation’s founders by staying on task: to humbly keep building the greatest country in the world from its blueprints, which give it the best possible advantage.

John Wright

(1) U.N. Education Index, 2007
(2) World Health Organization, 2000
(3) International Monetary Fund, 2010-2011
(4) U.N. Human Development Index, 2011
(5) e.g. Satisfaction with Life Index, 2006