America is not the Greatest Country in the World Anymore
The Newsroom -- Opening Scene
When the HBO show THE NEWSROOM was first announced, I managed to catch a video (seen at the right) which told me that this should be the greatest television show to come to the small screen since ... well, anything. In that clip, we hear Will McAvoy (the main character of the show) say this:
There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
I do hope you will take the time to watch the clip; better yet, I hope you take the time to watch Season One (the other seasons took a great show and killed it). Out of context, this set of claims is pretty powerful. In context, it is arguably one of the most important eight minutes or so of video that has ever appeared on television.
Where America Leads the World
Thic clip claims that America leads in only three categories: Incarcerations per capita, Religious Delusions, and Military Spending. Let's take a closer look at those...
Point #1: Incarcerated Citizens
To be completely honest, the United States of America rates as the #2 nation for incarceration. The island nation of Seychelles ranks an impressive margin higher than we do. Still, as a democratic republic, we incarcerate our citizens at a rate 50% higher than the communist dominated nation of the Russian Federation—number 10 on the list.
Top 10 Incarceration Rates
This is a disturbing statistic. When compared to other democratic nations, the United States of America's 707 prisoners per 100,000 people incarceration rate is frighteningly high. The Wikipedia page that has these incarceration rates lists:
- England = 148
- Spain = 144
- France = 103
- Japan = 51
This is not as disturbing as the rates listed in nations that most Americans would think would be rather oppressive:
- Iran = 282
- Vietnam = 143
- China = 124
- Pakistan = 41
Think about the numbers here. Granted, this is one data point, but when you think about this data point in the context of the Patriot Act, the NSA domestic spying, police violence against minority populations, and so on... you have to ask yourself: If you live in a country that is willing to imprison almost 1% of its population, are you really living in the land of the free?
Point #2: Angels are Real
This is not something that is easily verified. According to a 2011 CBS Poll, 77% of American adults believe Angels are real. I have no idea how many other nations have conducted such polls, and so I have no way of knowing if America is a world leader in this particular metric. But I think this statistic, even without thinking about it in terms of world leadership, is disturbing.
The Angels of the Judeo-Christian tradition are, for all intent and purpose, the minor gods of the religion. Where Greek Mythology had a god for this, a goddess for that, and a demi-god for the other thing, Judeo-Christian Mythology claimed monotheism: one god. One all-mighty (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-encompassing (omnipresent) and singularly True-God. In place of the multitudes of gods to inhabit the heavens, Judeo-Christian tradition includes the Angels.
If you do not think Angels and Gods are comparable, then you are not paying attention. The Greeks had Vulcan as their God of Fire; the Heavenly Host of Judeo-Christian myth had Gabriel fill that role. The Hindu God of War is Kartikeya; the Heavenly Host has Michael serve that purpose. In most religious pantheons, there exists a degree of infighting such that you have the blessed gods (e.g., in the bright over-world of Mt. Olympus) and cursed gods (e.g., cast into the dark underworld of Hades); in Judeo-Christian myth, one-third of the Heavenly Host rebelled against God and were cast out of the light of Heaven and condemned to the darkness of Hell.
But let us put that aside for a moment. The Bronze Age (and earlier) scriptures which proport the existence of Angels were written in a time when many other things were thought to have existed. Suppose we were to replace the word "Angel" with something else that was believed to exist at that time? Would you be comfortable with the idea that 77% of the adults in America believe in the existence of Ghosts? Unicorns? Fairies?
The point is this: if you believe in a literal view of Biblical teaching—a school of thought which requires that you see the Bible as the inerrant world of an omniscient being—and in that belief you see Angels not as symbols of allegory, but as real extant beings that continue to view and monitor the world today, then you are someone that has decided that a Bronze Age text should take precedence over all forms of rational thought and reason.
You have to ask yourself: If you live in a country where 77% of the adults you pass on the street each day are willing to suspend rational thought in favor of an ancient fairy tale, is this something you can honestly say is a quality that would exist in a truly great country?
Point 3: Military Spending
The idea that America should go without a military—that America should spend no money on National Defense—is ludicrous. The idea that America should spend more on its military than any other nation in the world is not irrational. As a world leader, it is arguably prudent for us to spend more than most other nations do. This is my opinion. Feel free to tell me that I am wrong in the comments.
However, the degree to which we spend money on National Defense has gone far past rational, zoomed by prudent, kicked sand in the face of irrational, and has settled into a realm that could be described as cartoon-ish.
Consider that the world has (as of June 2013) an estimated population of 7.2 Billion people. At that time, the United States had a population of approximately 322 Million people. This means that the United States accounts for about 4.5% of the world's population.
As the chart shows above, the United States is about 39% of the entire world's military expenditures. Honestly, go do some research. We not only "spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined" -- we alone more than a third of what the world spends. Since we account for 4.5% of the world's population, this means that on a per-capita basis, we outspend the rest of the world almost 9:1.
You have to ask yourself: If you live in a country so afraid of the rest of the world that it needs to spend a third of the global military output, dollar-for-dollar (or 9:1 on a per-person basis), what did that country do that makes the whole world hate them so much? Why are they so scared?
The United States of America is not the greatest country in the world any more. Maybe it was at some point in the not-too-distant past; maybe is wasn't. But as with all peoples, and all nations, we—as Americans—should ever strive to become the best people, the best nation, we can be. We should want to be the best.
But can we be the best we can be while we are jailing nearly 1% of our population, putting Bronze Age mythology above reason, and trying to use military might to impose our will upon the world? In my opinion, no, we cannot. But we cannot fix these things, nor can we address the many other issues that face this nation, while we still harbor deep rooted hatred of our own countrymen (e.g., sexism, racism, etc.), and an inability to care about anything but sound-bite level platitudes. We might, one day, get out of this. It will require, as the Newsroom so beautifully illustrates, some Greater Fools.
The Newsroom -- Greater Fool
The greater fool is actually an economic term. It’s a patsy. For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool— someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their lives trying not to be the greater fool; we toss him the hot potato, we dive for his seat when the music stops.
The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.
This whole country was made by greater fools.
Long live the Greater Fool.