Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Greatest Country?

A recent column by Leonard Pitts referred to an episode of HBO's The Newsroom.

[...] 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. [...]

So how do you decide greatness? Some of the criteria given, (literacy, life expectancy, exports, infant mortality) are questionable. I would propose that any criteria that an oil-rich Arab monarchy scores high on is invalid. Also, there is bad data in that list. American life expectancy is lower than it should be because we have a much more diverse (and violent) population than most countries. Many people (especially McAvoy's character) would normally celebrate diversity. Ethnic monocultures tend to be less violent. Factor out deaths by violence and America's life expectancy ranks among the highest. Infant mortality is another unfair measure because there is no standard for measuring it. America's standard is the toughest including many deaths that the rest of the world counts as miscarriages. We are still the world's biggest manufacturer (China isn't even a close #2).

How about freedom? McAvoy gives a list of other free countries (Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan). He shoud probably have included Australia in that list. Like Canada, it is part of the British commonwealth.

France, Germany and Japan are interesting choices. Germany and Japan are interesting choices. Both countries launched wars of expansion in the mid-20th century and are still examples of worst governments, ever. What changed them? The US conquered them and set up new governments. Not puppet governments but independent governments that are now models for freedom. France was one of the countries conquered and we helped restore the current government. Compare that with the countries that the USSR occupied during WWII.

So, the examples of other countries that are free comes down to the British Commonwealth (which we helped preserve during WWII) and governments that we helped create). Somehow that seems like a big argument for America's greatness.

There is a big difference between the US and these other countries - the Bill of Rights. Somehow we lost sight of the importance of having a set of freedoms that are well-defined and hard to change. All of these other countries have as much freedom as their governments think they need. This can be changed quickly and easily. It has also lead to some systemic problems.

France and Japan have institutionalized racism. Both have large populations of people whose parents or grandparents move there. These groups are not full citizens. In contrast, the US has millions of illegal immigrants but their children are full citizens.

France has a strange interpretation of freedom of religion. It is officially a secular country and is in the process of banning overt displays of religion. This includes head scarves worn by Muslim women and conspicuous crosses worn by Christians.

Germany is in a difficult position regarding Hitler. There, free speech stops with Hitler and Nazis. Anything from that period is banned. Recently a judge ruled that male circumcision is child-abuse outraging Jews and Muslims for whom this is considered mandatory.

Canada has banned hate speech and established tribunals that can hand down punishments for it. These have been manipulated by Islamic groups to suppress any negative mention of Islam. These tribunals have even ruled that truth is irrelevant as a defense.
The Commonwealth also has taken a puritanical approach to erotica. Canada banned violent imagery years ago. Great Britain did more recently after a gruesome kidnapping/murder. It was assumed, without any proof, that violent erotica can cause such actions. Australia followed suit with a law requiring ISPs to censor content. They have also ruled that possession of crudely-drawn pictures showing cartoon characters engaged in incest is a felony.

I am sure that McAvoy's character would celebrate all of this. The Left believes that religion is bad and should be suppressed as should hate speech and violent porn. And that is the problem. Freedom includes things that make us uncomfortable. If people are only free to do things that the ruling majority is comfortable with then they are not really free.

The US remains unique in both its character and its longevity. Most of our rivals for "greatest country" were created within living memory then they have not stood the test of time. Check back in 50 years and see how they turned out.


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