Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?
The question proceeds, of course, from an assumption, i.e., that America is, indeed, the greatest nation on Earth. 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 behind much of the world.
Therefore, he says, America is, in fact, not the greatest nation on the planet. There is something telling and true in the crestfallen expressions with which the audience greets that declaration. It’s as if someone has switched off the sun.
America believes in nothing quite so deeply as its own greatness.