Monday, July 8, 2013

America the Great

The opening scene of The Newsroom introduces our protagonist, Will McAvoy, as a jaded and bored news anchor at a Q&A/debate session with a few other media personalities at some university. The scene plays out as follows:

That speech, while simultaneously entertaining and cringe inducing, was loquacious and bordering on stream-of-consciousness: trademark Aaron Sorkin. And it also happened to be a speech about why America is not the greatest country in the world written by a writer who does believe America is the greatest country in the world.

In their heart of hearts, American liberals are just as proud as American conservatives concerning matters such as national greatness. But among the progressive elites of American society, it is a huge faux pas to say it directly, out loud, and be proud about it. Which is why Aaron Sor -- I mean Will McAvoy said all those things. We aren't the greatest, but we were and we can be again if we just did x, y, z. That is acceptable liberal/progressive code for saying "USA! USA! USA!"

David Mamet, quoting some dead old white guy, once wrote that liberalism can be reduced to just two words "and yet...". As in, the United States is the greatest country in the world, and yet we still can't find it within ourselves to offer universal healthcare like every other developed country. For people of a certain means and mindset, society can always be improved and requires a huge, collective effort directed by some central authority to make it so. Some liberals are more cautious than others when it comes to rushing into the breach with a bold new idea or program, but that is the general progressive/liberal point of view.

Conservatives obviously view it differently. They are slightly unnerved by the breakneck pace that modern society changes by, and are nostalgic for some bygone era that is always much worse than how they actually remember it. They are also amazed at how good people in the US have it and want to preserve our extraordinary circumstances even at the expense of innovation and improvement. Because change is uncertain. And it is certain that life in the US is great. Why should we, this group asks, risk destroying the essence of what makes America great for some nebulous, incremental improvement?

In the end, both conservatives and liberals (and most every American in and around those two camps) will always (if not publicly) agree with the following statement: America is the greatest country in the world. Conservatives will follow up with "and let's keep it that way" just like the conservative in the above clip. Liberals will follow up with "and yet we still have so much to improve upon".

The reason why we're the greatest country in the world is pretty simple. Although other countries might do better in certain individual aspects, no other country in the world has us beat when we are considered as a gestalt. Obviously, there is no concrete, objective measure for gauging the comparative greatness of countries. But, like pornography, this goes through a pretty accurate eyeball test. You know it when you see it. And for the past 150 years, no other country can match the overall efforts of the American people when it comes to outsized impact the country has had on science, the economy, world politics, and culture. It's really that simple.

It must be said that all this talk about comparative greatness is nothing more than an exercise in vanity. America being no. 1 isn't going to feed you when you're hungry or get your kids into their first school of choice. But pride is one of those traits that is universal to every culture. And our collective obsession with cataloging, quantifying, analyzing, and comparing greatness, whether it's in sports, history, politics, movies, business, or culture, isn't weird or stupid. It's natural. So say it loud and say it proud, baby. Because America is the greatest country in the world and there's no shame in admitting that.


  1. By the way, a good companion piece for this post is David Mamet's excellent "Why I Am No Longer a Brain-dead Liberal" piece in the Village Voice. The full article can be read here:

    His writing style, by the way, is just ridiculously good. Although I guess that's to be expected of a renowned playwright. Take pointers.

  2. Nice post, Jay, and thanks for the link. As for the scene above I found it cringe-worthy myself because only a savant would have that kind of data that instantaneously. Also, the moderator let the other two panelists get by with trite soundbite answers and pressed McAvoy only. Now, maybe I am nit-picking with that last bit, but to me it's lazy writing and Sorkin is a gifted writer and I expect better from him.

    1. Well, the prompt from the "sorority girl" (I can't remember her name off the top of my head) basically asked them to keep it short (in one sentence or less).

      I think it was established earlier in the scene that McAvoy was just phoning it in with cheap and easy quips while the other two panelists engaged in spirited debate. At that point, I think it was incumbent on the moderator to actually get something of value from McAvoy.

  3. Good points there Jay, but I still think it unrealistic of him to have all that information off the top of his head, especially if he was "phoning it in". If he had been reading from a smartphone or something, it would have been more believable, but I suppose I do nit-pick.