Tools to Change Society
“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”
Coming from her own subconscious doubt and insecurity about the answer, a college sophomore asked that question in the opening scenes of HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Why is it that we always need to be reassured about this question? Could it be that deep inside we have a queasy feeling that it is no longer true?
Newsroom anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) delivers one of the most articulate rebuttals to the idea that America is the greatest straight from the pen of Emmy Award winning Writer and Producer Aaron Sorkin.
Olympics 2012 gives us a useful opportunity to examine greatness in context. After the 1924 Paris Olympics and the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, the conventional wisdom of the day was that Harold Abrahams, winner of the 1924 100 Meter dash, was the “fastest man in the world.” Was he? That’s highly doubtful, considering the fact that only 44 countries participated in the 1924 games, and only two from Africa, Egypt and South Africa. Neither the newly established Soviet Union nor China was represented. Even Germany, which was still struggling with the aftermath of World War I, was not present. Abrahams’ time of 10.6 seconds has now been eclipsed by the current world record of 9.58 seconds.
If the London 2012 Olympic Games tell us anything, it is that all human beings everywhere in the world are really just about the same. Though the commentators ballyhoo the medalists, the truth is that the winners differ from the losers by only 100ths of a second or scoring point. Even in the very long cycling road races, which for men was 152.5 miles and for women 78.5 miles, the difference from the 1st to the 40th finishers was less than one minute, and the difference between a gold and silver medal was a single bike length or less.
Am I implying that the United States of America is not the greatest country in the world? Since I’m an American, I am obliged to say that it is; but I have my reasons too. Greatness does not come from the measures described by Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom,” but rather from the fact that despite all of our differences, and this year those seem particularly deep, the dynamism of a country built by the sons and daughters of every nation, race, culture and religion on Earth continues to be unmatched. Our Diversity is our gift from God.
This year Republican politicians want to sell us fear of Iran and China as a first priority, but those countries are no match for the United States on any measure. Iran can rattle its sabers all it wants, but it cannot change the fact that the United States spends 100 times as much on our armed forces as Iran. Should we be afraid of Iran’s “nuclear threat”? Well, maybe a little, but Iranians should be far more afraid of it. Why? Because, if some Iranian official foolishly does attack the United States or one of our allies with even one weapon, the Iranian government would be ended forthwith. What sensible person in the world would doubt that?
In the case of China, the United States imported nearly $400 Billion of products from China during 2011. If that business were suddenly to evaporate, as it surely would in the event of a serious military confrontation with China, China would suffer huge domestic unemployment, and would find itself fighting its own population. In such case, many WalMart and Sam’s Club customers would be upset because of an increase in prices, but not more. The China example demonstrates the strength and importance of the American economy, which Will McAvoy didn’t mention in his soliloquy, but which is highly relevant.
Still, the Olympics show us once again that we in the United States cannot be complacent about anything. The Chinese and Japanese athletes, who were no physical match for Americans in the first half of the 20th Century, have now had plenty of protein for decades, and their athletes are beating Americans left, right and center.
In many ways, Michael Phelps provides us with an apt metaphor for the United States itself. Like Phelps after the 2008 Olympics, the United States was the world’s dominant country after World War II, and particularly after the end of the “Cold War”. But our edge has slipped a bit, thanks to too many factors to name. Proteins, Facebook, and Twitter are just three that easily come to mind for anyone who can read this and use their brain.
What the last five decades has shown us clearly is that all human beings live on one very fragile planet, at least 350,000 years travel time from the nearest place that could provide a valid alternative for life once our Sun and the Earth no longer support our needs properly. On our planet, the next few decades are going to see serious dislocations, which will make the trials of the 20th Century seem like kindergarten.
The Chinese are damming the headwaters of the Ganges River, which provides water to half a billion people in India. Meanwhile, global warming is melting the Himalayan glaciers to such a degree that the Chinese dams may find themselves high and dry. India and China both must build the equivalent of one coal powered electrical power plant every week for the rest of the 21st Century, just to keep up with their population growth, and the demands can become hugely more complex in later centuries. Without water, growing food will become a major problem and lead to devastating shortages beyond the power of any government to help, regardless of how well meaning it is.
The Indian, Chinese, and Iranian examples are only a few of the issues that will face our grandchildren. There are similar dislocations in the offing everywhere. One only need go to the movies or turn on the TV to see how we are subconsciously preparing ourselves for a worse case scenario. “Hunger Games” and “Revolution” come immediately to mind.
The Olympics are great. They show us competition is good. For every young person we see at the games, it is very likely that 100 or 1,000 also competed back home, and made themselves and their future generation stronger. But one thing is clear, and that is that we must outgrow the idea that one country can dominate all of the others. Given the advantages we have had in the 20th Century in the United States, even through some very rough times, others will excel, and they will have their own ideas of how our problems will be solved going forward.
These are some of the reasons why the fictional sophomore revealed her subconscious queasiness about American greatness in the first episode of “The Newsroom.” The reason is that by many measures the United States is no longer “the greatest country in the world,” and that isn’t even the issue anymore anyway.
It is time for us to outgrow our myopic perspective, and realize that everyone in the world is going to have to find better ways to cooperate. The Olympic Games offer us a great metaphor for how that can be done. We just need to see our world leaders paying attention and actually leading, rather than always wanting to go to guns and set us back several centuries. These days that strategy just leads to a circular firing squad.
Skip Conover is an international businessman, author and artist. He is a Founder of this organization. You can follow him and his work on Twitter using @skip_conover. "Just Askin'" is a regular feature on this site.