About a week ago, MoveOn.org, a democratic liberal political advocacy group, shared a clip from a new HBO series, Newsroom, starring Jeff Bridges in which a college student asks a panel of 3 journalists to tell what makes the U.S. the greatest nation in the world. The first two panelists respond with pretty familiar, standard even hackneyed answers: “diversity and opportunity” said the first, “freedom and freedom” said the second. Bridges’ character, Will, tries to avoid answering the question but the panel moderator refuses to let him get away with it. A woman in the back is signaling Jeff with two signs: “It’s not” and “But it can be.” After fidgeting a great deal, Will finally gives an extended monologue in response explaining why the U.S. is NOT the greatest nation in the world. It’s a powerful 5 minute scene, made powerful by the same kind of insightful, biting, and provocative monologue combined with committed, passionate acting that made NBC’s The West Wing one of the best shows on television.
His response resonated with my own political sentiments which have evolved to be best described perhaps with labels such as progressive and radically democratic. Notice I didn’t label myself as a Democrat or Republican – although I do tend to vote for Democratic party candidates, I don’t run down the ticket and my politics can’t be reduced to issue litmus tests. Will’s response to this young student’s question – aside from his (unfair) criticism of the education this college student was receiving – is pretty critical and criticism of our nation has always been dangerous. People seem to think that it just got dangerous to criticize the government after 9/11. Not so, it was dangerous during the McCarthy Era, too. But beyond that, it’s always been dangerous for minoritized people (i.e., Blacks, Latin@s, Asian Americans, American Indians, multiracial people; women; LGBTQ; poor folks) to criticize the government. Recall the violent repression of enslaved Africans, women seeking suffrage, queer folks in the Castro district and at Stonewall, labor unions in the early 20th century, the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. What makes Will’s criticism stand out is that it’s coming from someone who seems to be part of the majority: White, cisgender male, college-educated maybe even with an advanced degree, professional, middle-class, heterosexual, masculine; his faith is unknown to me but I’d be surprised if Will wasn’t a Christian even if he wasn’t actively religious. People like Will don’t usually criticize the U.S. in this way, but it’s happening more and more – and in real life – see for example, White men like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Tim Wise,
[**CORRECTION 7\7\12: A good friend recently informed me that Jay Smooth self-identifies as Black/biracial. My apologies to him for not correctly identifying his racial identity and for colluding with making multiracial people invisible and unrecognized in the US racial millieu.**]
People who criticize the U.S. – from a liberal political viewpoint – are often accused of “hating” the country and being “unpatriotic.” Conservative Republicans have so thoroughly co-opted patriotism that it’s even been supported by academic research: U.S. News published a Harvard study that found that 4th of July parades are correlated with increased conservative activism and voter turnout in November. I disagree with this assessment. I believe the sentiments expressed in the Newsroom clip by Will and those expressed everyday by social justice activists and politicians are deeply patriotic and born from a love of this country and a desire to see it be better, to fulfill the promise of this country’s founding documents to realize “liberty and justice for all,” not just for the few.
Although I found myself applauding by the time the clip ended, I must admit that three issues remain problematic for me. First, as evidence that we’re not the greatest nation, Will points to how we stack up against other industrialized nations in where our students place in math and science. Do I want our children to know math and science better than they do? Yes, I do. Is being number 25, 15, 5, or 1 the most significant issue in determining our national status? Not for me. I’m more interested in the numbers of women in elected positions given that they constitute a majority of the electorate in this nation. I’m more concerned about the ways we treat those who immigrate to this nation for a better life and who are contributing to our national economy and culture. I’m looking at whether we interpret our founding documents to restrict freedom and equality or to expand them. These are the vices that most condemn us and the virtues that will most testify of us, not our “Race to the Top.” We weren’t a great nation because we got to the moon first (before the Soviets). We were a great nation because we applied our best minds to solve a problem and succeeded; we set a goal and reached it. This emphasis on competing for rankings has gotten our priorities confused and muddied our focus. Let’s focus on getting children to love math and science for its ability to help us solve problems and excite our imaginations. That will likely move us up in the global rankings, but being first isn’t the prize. The prize will be continuing to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, technology innovators, and teachers who will help us to continue to effectively respond to the scientific challenges of our time and the future.
Second, the woman in the back with the sign cards didn’t just prompt him to say “it’s not [the greatest nation in the world].” The second placard said, “But it can be.” That sentiment was never expressed by Will in his response. Perhaps that was a cinematic ploy – to leave unspoken and subconscious the faith and hope that what made us great before – a commitment to continuing to expand the reach of opportunity, using our reason and intellect to help us solve the biggest problems that confronted us, having our faith motivate us individually to serve the least of these – can once again become part of our national character. Maybe it was left unspoken because Will –and by extension perhaps the rest of us – are doubtful; we aren’t sure of what the U.S. will be in the future.
But it can be…what? The greatest nation on earth? Hmm, there’s my third problem. Why are we as a nation so obsessed with being the greatest? It’s not enough for us to be a great nation it seems; we have to be better than everybody else and we’re not great unless we are better. Why is that? Are we so obsessed with competition (and so insecure) that we think, in a kind of capitalist application to government, that U.S. democracy (or really democratic republicanism) will eventually eliminate all other competing political ideologies to become a prototype for the rest of the world? This is what happened with photo formats, right? Remember the days when you could buy a Polaroid, a 35mm, or a digital camera – and you pretty much had to be a professional photographer to afford a digital camera. Eventually – actually pretty quickly – the choices were either a 35mm or a digital, and you still had to be a professional photographer to afford the digital camera. Now, you just have one option – a digital camera; even the one-time use camera is in digital format. The differences are simply a matter of optional features and price-points; everybody’s essentially got the same camera.
Is that what we in the U.S. think is supposed to happen on an international scale regarding forms of government? Eventually every nation on earth will be a democratic republic of the U.S. type with antiquated systems like totalitarianism, communism and democratic socialism and those silly monarchies going the way of the Polaroid and 35mm camera? Wait, but that’s what’s happening already with communism, right? I mean, really, China and Cuba are on the verge of adopting free-market capitalism right? And with free-market capitalism, democratic republicanism is just the next step, right? Right?! (Please hear my sarcasm.) Um, I don’t think so. Forms of government aren’t comparable to commercial products. People across the world will always have and tolerate different forms and styles of government, because different forms and styles of government better suit different cultures. Now, I’m not saying that there’s some ultimate purpose for fascism and Nazism or for brutal dictatorships – some forms of government need to go away forever.
A democratic republic is not inherently better than socialism – neither is socialism inherently better than democracy or a democratic republic (I told you my politics wouldn’t fit into neat boxes). Governments and nations become great not because they are better than another government or nation, but because that government, that nation strives to do a better job with each passing generation of building citizens who are capable of caring for each other, strengthening national infrastructure to support the future, and interested in a cooperative economics (the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa) and collective work ethic (Kwanzaa’s Ujima principle) that wants to lift all boats globally, not just its own.
Every election represents an opportunity for eligible voters in the U.S. to cast their votes to bring our nation one step closer to fulfilling the potential of its own greatness or to pull us into an isolationism and petty, mean-spiritedness that produced some of the most horrible moments in U.S. history. I agree with Will: We’re not the greatest nation on earth, but we’re also not going to be either; we don’t need to be the greatest. But we can be… We can be great by realizing the truth of our motto, E pluribus unum, out of many one. Becoming one doesn’t mean homogenizing all our differences. Becoming one means realizing that our destinies are bound up in each other’s fates. We won’t advance as a nation until we all advance together.
Happy Independence Day.