Thursday, June 28, 2012

America is Not the Greatest Nation in the World

"So when you ask me what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the $%*@ you’re talking about; Yosemite? . . . It sure used to be.  We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons; we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons; we waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed; we cared about our neighbors; we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.  We built great, big things; made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars; acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior.  We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t…we didn’t scare so easy.  We were able to be all these things and do these things because we were informed, by great men; men who were revered.  The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that there is one.  America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.  Enough?"

Before I elaborate, I must attribute.  This quote comes from the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which premiered Sunday.  You can watch the first episode here for free (note that the episode is no longer available for free), and you absolutely should.  Now.  It's okay, I'll wait. When you get back, I'll talk more about this after the jump:

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the above quote, is probably best-known for creating the West Wing.  This, I think, is ironic, since I haven't watched the West Wing.  I keep meaning to, but I always find something else to watch on Netflix instead. Maybe after the bar exam I'll see what all the fuss is about.  Personally, my love for Sorkin originated with Sports Night, though I later learned that his first screenplay was a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, A Few Good Men.  My friend Leigh says that Sorkin's  writing is more appropriate for plays than for television, and I'm not well-versed enough in theater to dispute that, but all I know is that I absolutely love everything I've ever seen that Sorkin worked on (yes, even this one).

His characters are smart, articulate, and quick-witted.  They pontificate and soliloquize far more than people typically do in real life, but they represent what I strive to be, and wish everyone were.  Specifically, they are smart, passionate people who speak their minds clearly and concisely, and refuse to back down from positions that are unpopular.  This temerity is something that is far too common among people I know personally, and frighteningly even more common among those entrusted with the power to make decisions that affect the entire nation.

So let's look at exactly what the character is saying up there.  And keep in mind that this speech follows after a long list of categories that the United States is not #1, along with the three where we are.  To say that the United States is not the greatest nation in the world is not to say that I don't love my country.  It is not to belittle the accomplishments of our forebears, and it is certainly not to belittle the men and women who volunteer to put their lives on the line in the service of our country.  It is simply to acknowledge the reality that something the United States has been doing for the past few decades is not working.

And it hasn't been working for longer than I've been alive.  When I say that I love my country and that I'm proud of it, I mean it genuinely from the bottom of my heart.  I have a faith in America that defies logic and flies in the face of evidence.  That faith is borne from an absolute confidence that the foundations of our country are strong.  However, there is another quote from this show that is on point that I do not agree with entirely.

"Our Constitution is a masterpiece, James Madison was a genius, and the Declaration of Independence is to my mind the single greatest piece of American writing."  Here, Sorkin's character is right on two points, and half right on the other.  James Madison was undoubtedly the most brilliant leader America has ever known.  Bar none.  And the Declaration of Independence is, indeed, the single greatest piece of American writing.  However, our Constitution is no longer a masterpiece.  When it was drafted, it was; but it is showing its age.

In our grade school history classes we are taught that the tradition of a written constitution began with Magna Carta in 1215, but that isn't really true.  Magna Carta has but a superficial similarity to the kind of written constitution we think of.  It is one thing to create a document that tells an individual (even an individual as powerful as the King of England) that certain actions are forbidden.  That's what Magna Carta did.  And keep in mind that the protections of it were really only provided to nobles.

That's not what the U.S. Constitution did, though.  As Edmund Morgan illustrates, James Madison did more than draft the Constitution.  He essentially created the concept of popular sovereignty itself.  Today, not only do we hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  Today, we hold it to be self-evident that all government ultimately derives itself from the consent of the governed; even if that consent is obtained through duress.  But in the eighteenth century, this was anything but self-evident.  It was revolutionary.

The U.S. Constitution cemented the notion of popular sovereignty in its preamble.  Three throwaway words sum up the entire argument for America's independence from the Crown; "We the People."  But that isn't all the Constitution accomplished.  At the same time that it poured the cement into the foundation of popular sovereignty, it erected dividers within that foundation, preventing construction in particular areas.  The People's supremacy is so powerful that we can take actions that limit the actions of the People in the future.  It's the rock so heavy God cannot lift it.

The written constitution invented in 1789 was something entirely new, and it was, indeed, a masterpiece.  But political technology has developed significantly since then.  In the 21st-century, we are running our country using 18th-century electoral technology.  Our Constitution is a wonderful foundation, but we need to erect a glorious 21st-century framework atop it if we want to regain our place as the greatest nation in the world.

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