Reading George Bush’s description of America as the greatest nation on the earth from the Republican National Convention, I was reminded of Olympic sprinter Maurice Greene’s tattoo of a lion, underneath which are the letters “GOAT.” These letters stand for Greatest Of All Time, as, no doubt, friends and fans could tell you. However, the rest of us wouldn’t understand this image, which will remain indelible on Greene’s arm even as his muscles start to shrivel. Similarly, I am not sure how meaningful the eulogy to the still-muscular American nation that Bush reaffirmed and that is as familiar to the ear as the drone of an air conditioning unit, really is.
In what way is America the greatest nation on the earth? Was the greatest scientist an American? The names that come to my mind first are Darwin (England), Einstein (Germany) and Newton (England again). How about great literary figures? Well, Whitman and Eliot are up there, but Dante (Italy), Goethe (Germany), Shakespeare (England) and Proust (France) probably put more Barnes and Noble executives’ children through college. Musicians? Is it George Gershwin, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley or Kurt Cobain? Perhaps, but what about Bach (Germany), Mozart (Austria), Wagner (Germany), Rachmaninov (Russia), and The Beatles (England)? All right then, greatest governor of California — or would that be an Austrian?
Of course, even if the greatest genius in any of the fields above did not come from the United States, this does not mean that the national community here is not the greatest society on the earth. The United States is very rich, for one thing, and can thus finance fine universities, well-paid orchestras and world-class galleries, as well as 2-4-1 martini evenings at GPSCY. And even if democracy in Iraq, like the tire-marks left by the tanks, melts away amidst the flames, there is no question that the United States is still powerful. Any country that provides 25 percent of the United Nations foreign aid budget, spends around $401 billion on defense, and whose media networks throw a daily echo of English around the globe will remain the world’s hegemon. But does any of this make the United States great?
I sense that Americans believe they are a great nation because they believe that they are free. As Walt Whitman wrote: “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, — churches or parlors, — newspapers or inventors — but always most in the common people — [with] their deathless attachment to freedom.” As a well-enough-paid student from England who is fingerprinted and forced to smoke on the streets outside of bars, yet who is given funding, a broad choice of courses, my own place, and who has $12-13 available on my credit card, writing this, I do feel free here. I am free to go on a political demonstration, free to read uncensored newspapers, free to eat just ice cream for dinner. I am one of many who cherish and squander this freedom, provided by the free market and the free press — for those who can pay.
So why do I roll my eyes when I hear American politicians saluting the United States as the greatest nation on the earth? Because such a statement invites comparison with other nations, like those other liberal democracies, say in Europe, who do not see what they have to learn from the United States? Well, yes, but I think my concern with such complacent self-congratulation is not just a shout of “Me too” from a European with his elbows out, pushing for room in the corridors of greatness. I fear that the solemn jingle that advertises America’s greatness also short-circuits the thought process of the audience. The listeners believe not that the United States is great because its people climb and sink following the uneven path of freedom, but that freedom is great because it is American. The concept of freedom becomes a trademark of a patented product, the American way of life, which must be exported to keep the shareholders at home happy.
I’m not sure freedom can be stitched up in such a package. Rather, deprived of the oxygen of debate, it may die in the process of delivery and return home in a coffin, draped with the American flag.
Christian Bailey is a second-year graduate student in the history department.