From Liberty Street: Number What?

John Turner

I opened my Parade magazine yesterday and was greeted by a screaming headline: "Is America Still No.1?"

It's an obnoxious question which signals an even more obnoxious -- and pathetic -- emotional condition. Who cares if we're Number 1? And what does that mean anyway?

The thrust of the simple-minded piece was that though the United States is "number one" in many categories, it's not all that great in others. There are inserts on facing pages titled "Where We Lead" and "Where We Lag." One of the categories in which we "lead" is in the number of military personnel stationed outside our borders. There are 460,000 of them in 144 countries. That's really something to be proud of. We also have more billionaires than any other nation, a total of 371. That number might be coupled with the infant death rate, where instead of being number one, the U.S. is 34th. No connection you say. How do you know?

Two categories that boost our number one rating is the number of cigarettes sold in foreign countries, and the total amount of weapons. I wonder if these two make us number one in the number of deaths caused world wide. That would be something really to puff our chests about.

Parade says that our having the highest per capita rate in the world of people in prison is an area of lag. But how does Parade know? Doubtless there are some Americans who are proud of that.

The desire to shake a finger in someone's face and proclaim "We're Number 1," is a pathological condition that points to a deep neurosis. People who actually have confidence in themselves don't do things like that. They don't have to. They know who they are, what they care about, and how to work towards it. And they don't have to insult or humiliate anyone in order to pursue their lives.

For the past six years we have had a president who is seriously troubled by the suspicion that he is personally inferior to other world leaders. He has his publicity people issue absurd lists of the books he is presumably reading and the authors who have influenced his thinking. Yet, there's nothing in his spontaneous speech to indicate that he has heard of influential thinkers, let alone read their books. The point is not that he's, at best, poorly educated. It is rather that he feels inferior about it, and tries to overcome the feeling through bombast.

It's an old story that the typical bully is tyrannized by feelings of inferiority. But we've given scant attention to whether the psychology of a bully can characterize an entire people.

When Charles Dickens came to the United States in 1842, thinking to find it a bulwark of democracy and equality, he was shocked by the crude bombast that afflicted him on every side. He went home and wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, with scathing chapters depicting both the braggadocio and the greedy cruelty of American society. Those sections might well be taken as an analysis of American foreign policy since 2001. It has been more than a century and a half since Martin Chuzzlewit appeared, yet there are some indications that the nation hasn't learned a great deal over all those decades.

Those appearances are partially wrong, of course. The United States has vast resources of learning, good sense, thoughtful and charitable people, and concern for the well-being of the world. Yet, a lingering sense of inferiority drives too many of our citizens to speak and behave in ways that make us the laughing stock of the world. And it seems to be the case that vulgar displays always get more attention than the activities of sensible people.

Some say that surging vulgarity possesses a vitality that drives Americans to ever-greater achievements. There's probably a grain of truth in the thought. Even so, it ought to be possible to retain our energies without insulting everybody else in the world.

The truth is we have no yardstick to tell us that one people, or one nation, is greater than another. Exercises of that sort depend on choosing measures that make others look shoddy in comparison to ourselves. It's not the kind of activity leading to anything positive.

We would serve our country best not by trying to show that it's better than some place else but rather by giving thought to what we genuinely want to be and then settling down to work towards it. We wouldn't have to give a thought to being number one if we were what we actually ought to be.



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Harvard Square Commentary, January 15, 2007