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Leonard Pitts Jr.: America The Greatest?

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Leonard Pitts Jr.: America The Greatest?


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.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. howa4x July 4, 2012

    We have to have a national conversation to define what greatness really is. We just can’t say we have the largest and most powerful military, and that makes us great. Rome had that and look at what happened, they rotted from within. I think our greatness is a myth talked about mostly by older white men. Just ask anyone beside them the question and I’m sure you will get a different answer, like women, gays, anyone of color, Latinos, the homeless, unempolyed, or assorted victims. Their answers is what America is really like. Once we read them, then we can decide if America is really great for everyone.

    1. Raymond Baldwin July 11, 2012

      One aspect of greatness might be, other nations general populations having a desire to emulate us, assuming that their motives were for all the right reasons, whatever those might be. So, just what are the “right” reasons? It is strange how every answer creates still another question!

  2. Raymond Baldwin July 4, 2012

    I do not like what this country is, I love what it could be. I hate some things it has done in the past. I love some things done by individuals. .. not the government, but by individuals. The self serving, greedy, out-of-touch, wealthy politicians in government are a disgrace, and casts shame upon all of us, by their actions. They exist as a sort of club, playing self serving games, with our fellow citizens as the pawns. A cleansing revolution might not be out of the question!

    1. Colleen Klemp July 5, 2012

      I totally agree, what this country did to the Navive Americans in the early times & how they continue to ignor their problems is a shame. What the did to the slaves & continue to do in certain parts of the country is apprehensiable. How they treated the Japs is deplorable while almost giving a free pass to those of German descent. How they are trying to silence the Latintos is just plain wrong!

  3. Kevin Schmidt July 4, 2012

    What do you mean America is not the greatest?
    For your information, America IS #1 in so many ways that it’s not even funny:

    Colonialism, imperialism, genocide, ecocide, torture, terrorism, rape, looting and plundering are all proud American traditions since 1492!

    See? I told you it’s not even funny.

    America is also the #1 KKKristian nation in the world.


    God bless America

  4. dbrian7188 July 4, 2012

    I like this country because this country’s money has the phrase : ” In God we trust” So people who live in this country do not believe in God please be quiet.
    We shall be thanked God for what we have and what he had done for us.
    Love God above is everything that is his first commandment even though we do not see him and know where he is
    Love one to the other means brothers to sister, gays to lesbians, white, yellow to black.
    husbands to wives, old people to young and by the opposite, young loves old.
    Respect people no matter where you are coming from, what races or color
    Humble means low yourself so others can lift you up
    Honesty and Integrity means not liar to people and a job is seriously
    Be generous with your money. Who has a lot of money on this planet? The answer is GOD

    Peace with you all

  5. Raymond Baldwin July 4, 2012

    I do not hate people for what they believe, for I know that their parents and society have so indoctrenated them. Rather I hate what they or their beliefs may have done. If there had been eleven commandments, instead of ten, I suspect that the first would have simply and effectively been… THINK!

  6. Baron Cormac July 4, 2012

    Those of us who served in the Military so the rest of you could be free realize that Freedom has a cost. The cost is the lives of countless individuals who gave their time to maintain all of our Freedom. Now we have one of the two major political parties that feels it is the only one with a monopoly on Patriotism. This is something I find more than ironic given the number of their more prominent members, especially those who were running for President this year, who went out of their ways to avoid serving in the military because they were too busy. Governor Perry was the exception.

    What is our greatness? In my somewhat less than humble opinion it is the ability of people like my father’s generation to overcome the Great Depression and then go and fight someone who not only wanted to deprive others their rights, but their very lives as well. Then they came back and built something for the rest of us to be proud of. Unfortunately, there are some who would take away what they built looking to make a quick buck.

    We show our greatness every time we go to the polls BY OUR CHOICE, and select whomever we wish to be our government. No one makes us vote. It is a right we have earned time and again since Lexington and Concord. No one forces us to vote in an election with one candidate, or in an election that no matter who is running, one person will win with over 90% of the vote, even though you cannot find anyone who actually voted for him. Oh, yes, I know there will be millions spent this year by those seeking office and their supporters. Some of the readers of these posts will undoubtably be among those who benefit financially from this. But again, it is by choice. We will probably receive enough junk mail and robo-calls this year to drive a normal person sane. But we have the ultimate say in who we elect. Those who would deny others this right would do well to remember what we have done with tyrants in the past.

    1. Pelu Maad July 5, 2012

      I read the first sentence. That military brainwashing just doesn’t work for me….Sorry.

  7. Carl Oscar Isaacson July 4, 2012

    I do not understand the need to be “the greatest” in anything. I do not doubt that having a “national goal” and a sense of heading toward attainment of that goal is important for uniting a vast and heterogeneous population. But I do not understand why any people feels that it must advance its national identity over the identity of other nations. In fact, that desire leads to denial, hegemonic designs that cannot be fulfilled, and finally the downfall of that nation. We have engaged in numerous wars to demonstrate our destiny. These have not turned out well, especially our war in what has been called “the graveyard of empires.”

  8. montanabill July 4, 2012

    Leonard would do well to take note of his own last line. Today we celebrate the adoption of the document on which the words reside that define what our birth right is about. As equals, we are endowed by our Creator with just a few rights. Among those are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nowhere in that document does it say we are endowed with the right to health care, food, shelter, transportation, or even a job. We became a great nation because we used that right to liberty to pursue whatever we as individuals and families needed to secure a happy life. Today, too many of us look to someone or something else to be responsible for providing us with happiness or help for neighbors who might need a helping hand. Until we return to the power of the individual, strife and decline will be our mutual course.

    1. dtgraham July 4, 2012

      I know you value human freedom greatly montanabill. We all do. I notice that you seem convinced exactly what rights the “creator” has endowed us with, and you seem especially pleased that it’s “just a few rights.”

      Nowhere in the Magna Carta does it speak of health care either. Nor the Canadian constitution. Nor, I’m quite sure, the several hundred to thousand year old documents of more ancient European nations. If that were a prerequisite, no one would have universal health care today.

      Nothing wrong with freedom and the power of the individual, but too much of an emphasis on rugged individualism and ‘you’re on your own’ philosophy will lead to strife and decline long term, I believe. I’m reminded of the history of many South American countries where you had freedom, technically, but what did it mean? A small percentage controlled all of the wealth and there were two classes of people—–the super wealthy and the desperately poor, and almost nobody in between. Not a lot would choose to live there over a Sweden or a Norway where there’s less “freedom”.

      I believe more in a philosophy that combines freedom and responsibility with compassion and national social responsibility. Private charity has severe limits. Bill, try googling Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed second bill of rights from 1944. It’s absolutely remarkable. I don’t know whether it’s realistically achievable, but striving towards that is a sign of national greatness in my eyes.

      1. montanabill July 5, 2012

        The rights that you want you can obtain by your own decisions and efforts and the liberty to effect those rights. A small piece of liberty given to government is a piece of freedom lost. In my case, I am getting a lower quality of health care just so others can improve theirs. Is that really fair? Did they work for it as hard as I did? Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t. A universal solution does not take that into account nor can it take into account the infinite variations of the human condition in order to provide targeted health care where wanted or needed. Norway and Sweden seemed to be mentioned very often by progressives as desirable countries and yet, I see no migration from the U.S. to either of them. Why?
        Why do you say private charity has severe limits?
        As for Roosevelt’s proposed bill of rights, they are basically the rights to be lazy. They are nice individual goals, but the individual must take the responsibility to achieve those goals if desired for himself. For example, suppose I want to be a rhubarb farmer. According to Franklin, I should have that right and I should expect to be able sell enough rhubarb to provide a decent living for me and my family. But what if no one wants rhubarb? By government defining that it is a ‘right’, the government would be responsible for buying my rhubarb so that I can continue to make a decent living. It means that money taken from the citizens by the government will be used to buy a product they don’t want. I know that really does apply to some farming today. It ought to stop. Take any one of Roosevelt’s proposed new ‘rights’ and follow each one to a conclusion. If you are honest, you will find that each one would ultimately result in more harm than initial good. Life is not a fairy tale.

        1. dtgraham July 5, 2012

          On the rhubarb; Roosevelt wasn’t going into details with the fair return for farmers thing. FDR wouldn’t have meant the way you conjured up that rhubarb possibility. You know, someone suddenly deciding to take up farming and then growing a product with no demand, and possibly no history of it. Then lining up for gov’t payments. He wouldn’t have been talking about that. Short term support for an otherwise popular item that was experiencing a temporary market downturn? Maybe.

          Humanitarian ideals shouldn’t be shelved because someone can see a possible loophole that may result in some extreme event. Extreme scenarios can be dealt with legislatively, proactively preferably, or retroactively. Nothing has to be necessarily taken to it’s conclusion but, rather, only so far as positive results warrant a continuation of the policy. Some of those proposals though, like a living wage, seem like a pretty good conclusion to me. No, life isn’t a fairy tale but wealthy economies can make themselves a hellhole through indifference and callousness, or they can be much better than that. There is a choice.

          Someone doesn’t deserve the same health care, when it’s needed, because they didn’t work hard enough at their job? What? I buy the idea that some people can’t afford a luxury car, or as nice a tie, or as expensive a pair of shoes. That’s life. I get all that. Not for health care though. That’s one thing that’s completely different. You’re going to tell someone that they can only have one of the two fingers reattached from their accident, or that their chemotherapy will have to be discontinued, or they can’t have that badly needed surgery, because they ran out of money. That’s incomprehensible to me and we’ll have to leave it at that montana. We have very different values on that and there’s no middle ground there.

          Private charity does have severe limits. It’s obviously a wonderful thing and it can fill gaps, but there’s only so much it can do. When Social Security first came in, it slashed geriatric poverty to a fraction of what it had been. Where was private charity prior to that? It’s not charity’s fault that it absolutely cannot handle medical care or senior’s support payments on a national scale. It’s not meant for that.

          1. montanabill July 5, 2012

            FDR didn’t care about details because he was only interested in platitudes that resulted in more power for his government. Remember the farmer that was fined for growing wheat for his own use? Legislation didn’t cure that outrage.
            Humanitarian ideas are fine, as long as, the freedom remains to accept or reject them. When government is used to enforce someone’s humanitarian idea, the end result is no different that when government is used to enslave a population.
            Want a living wage? Make good decisions. Want health care? Make good decisions. Working hard only has benefits if you have made the right decisions, otherwise, you are just working hard. As far as the rationing of healthcare illustration you posed, that is not going to change except that it will be a government bureaucrat deciding whether your needs are worth the money.
            Social Security, when it was first proposed and implemented, was a far different animal than it is today and it did not slash geriatric poverty.
            It may be crass, but government uses the business end of gun to take something from someone to give to someone else, it can hardly be called humanitarian.

          2. dtgraham July 5, 2012

            The National Bureau of Economic Research shows a decline in geriatric poverty from 35% down to 10% between 1960 and 1995. They also show a further similarly steep decline dating back to 1939. Social security, medicare, and medicaid do work Bill. They work the way they were intended to work.

            That rationing of health care that I posed would change 100% for unfortunate people who aren’t able to benefit from the best of American medicine. Hell, some who believe that they have good private coverage find out later that they aren’t able to benefit in nearly the way that they thought they were going to be able to. There’s a private health insurance company bureaucrat between you and your doctor every step of the way, advising your doctor what they’ll pay for and what they won’t, regardless of what the doctor feels is the right course of action.

            It’s all about profit and answering to shareholders. They’ll do anything to deny coverage. They don’t care because it’s an oligopoly. It’s not a true market and everybody’s doing the same thing. You can’t make health care insurance a true market. Private, for profit, is just utterly inappropriate for health care, even if it works so well in most other sectors of the economy. You forget who you’re talking to montana. That rationing of health care illustration that I posed would never, ever, happen in Canada, or with U.S. seniors on medicare (I think). We’re talking the chemo, fingers, etc.. However, those illustrations are routine in the U.S.

            By the way, I may have been wrong about that second bill of rights. For some reason, I just assumed that it was semantics. I thought that it was a euphenism for a list of objectives. If he actually meant adding it to the constitution as some kind of addendum, that does put a little different spin on things. I was just thinking about that today. You would have to word it awfully carefully to prevent future constitutional issues. I mean, business people having a guaranteed constitutional right to be protected from unfair competition? Even your fictitious rhubarb farmer might possibly have a case, given that. I still love it. Just depends on how it’s implemented and done.

            Lastly, why aren’t people moving to Norway? Ever seen Norwegian? Not sure even Rosetta Stone would help. The weather isn’t a seller either.

          3. montanabill July 6, 2012

            My response to geriatric poverty was simply because I know a number of people who survive solely on SS. I don’t believe they would say they are not in geriatric poverty. You are right about insurance company bureaucrats, to a very large degree exacerbated by the creation of HMO’s. I simply can’t see how putting a government bureaucrat in the mix is going to have any positive effect.
            According to my Canadian friends, you are wrong about rationing in Canada which is why they come to the states when they don’t want to wait for services.

          4. dtgraham July 6, 2012

            There can be wait times for non emergency treatments. Not denying that. You read about the very odd bad case in the papers (wait times) but it’s always acted on and they take it seriously. Beyond that, I guess I can only reference my own experiences with the system, and that of my family, work colleagues, and so on. I really only have positive stories but I’m aware that there are negative ones out there too. No system is perfect.

            I would say two things about any wait times. There are a number of walk-in clinics in every Canadian city where you can see a doctor any time (but you’ll have to wait your turn). If your neighbours are Albertans, I’m wondering about the tales you’re getting as they are somewhat less predisposed towards socialized medicine than any other Canadian Province or Territory. I think I can safely say that. They’re different. Not the same type of conservatism as in the U.S. exactly, but different by our standards.

            In my examples, there would always be no wait time at all for emergency surgery and you’d be top priority for cancer treatments with little if any wait time.

            Government bureaucrats? I once saw a U.S. doctor on a political show explain that he never has any dealings at all with bureaucrats for his medicare patients. He’s freed up to just concentrate on healing them. With private, he’s got an insurance industry guy in his face, constantly telling him what he can do and still expect to receive payment. He has to clear a lot with them first. There’s your difference. In single payer, the bureaucrats are much higher up, deciding things like… how many MRI’s should be for a given geographic location and that kind of thing. Once you see a doctor though, he/she can treat you in any way that they feel is best. No involvement from anybody else. There’s no profit motive.

            Well, again, good talking to you montana. You’re really up on things and you always enlighten me as to how the American right sees the world.

          5. montanabill July 6, 2012

            My neighbor is dual citizen of the U.S. and his native Quebec. I also know a number from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, and you are right about them thinking a little different than eastern Canada. Mostly, the doctors here do not deal with Medicare bureaucrats. They either don’t take Medicare patients or have hired staff to deal with Medicare. I doubt that you could find one that thinks it is a pleasure to deal with Medicare. (I’m in the health care field.) Medicare reimbursement time is on a par with insurance companies. With Medicare and HMO’s cutting reimbursements, the average face time with a physician has gone from about 15 minutes to 5 minutes. More and more, your face time is with a P.A.
            We also have a lot of doc-in-the-box facilities. Those are about the only places, short of an emergency room, where you can see a doctor with little notice (depending on the number of people already waiting). My guess is that a fairly large number of independent physicians here will join those already operating cash only practices. For those that can afford it or have insurance that will reimburse the patient after they pay, it will be a return to the family physician.

          6. dtgraham July 6, 2012

            I love that doc-in-the-box name. Sounds like some place that kids would want their parents to take them to. The medical Mcdonalds. They ought to rename the walk-in clinics up here to doc-in-the-box.

            By the way, that was just Alberta I was talking about. BC is referred to as the left coast and is very liberal (NDP these days). Saskatchewan is the home of Tommy Douglas and socialized medicine. His party (NDP) is still very strong there. While Albertans would never vote out the Canada Health Act, they do tend to go their own way. Glad they stayed Progressive Conservative though, in their recent Provincial election.

            I’m sorry to hear of the anti-corruption practises act of Montana being cast aside by the Supreme Court. Montana sounds like a place that really believes in strong, transparent, grass roots democracy. They really take democracy to the street. Very clean, transparent, elections for the last 100 years apparently. That’s a bloody shame. Take care montanabill.

  9. Pelu Maad July 5, 2012

    American “greatness” boasts have always seemed like thinly veiled white supremacy to me…


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