Surely the greatest country on earth would have the leading educational system in the world, but we don't.
We are the greatest country on earth. If you don't believe it, just ask us.
American "exceptionalism"--the declaration of which produces that warm feeling of knowing there's nobody as good as you are--is a growth industry these days, particularly in the right wing's workshops.
Hardly a day goes by without a conservative politician telling us how terrific we are and how anybody who disagrees should be deported.
"The reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt," writes presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in his new book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
Not to be outdone, another candidate, Mike Huckabee, told an interviewer: "To deny American exceptionalism is to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence (you're not going to believe this, but he's a Republican presidential hopeful too) have all spoken out on the issue; Sarah Palin devoted a whole chapter in her book (not a picture book, either) on "America the Exceptional."
OK. I'm as willing to go along with a joke as the next guy. Before I accept a claim of greatness, however, I'd like to see a little proof. How are we the greatest country on earth?
Education? Surely the greatest country on earth would have the leading educational system in the world.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published the results of achievement tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries of the world.
Our kids came in 25th in math, 17th in science, and (here's the good news) 14th in reading.
Add to that we've slipped to twelfth in the industrialized world in percentage of college graduates. When most high school seniors can't tell which came first, the Mexican War or the Spanish-American war, or find Russia on a map of the world, it's "Mission Control, we have a problem."
So maybe we're not so hot in education. The leaders in that category are South Korea, Finland, and Singapore, along with some regions of China. But we're still the greatest military power in the world. We have a great Army, a terrific Navy, an incredible Air Force, and a Marine Corps to die for. We spend as much on our military as the rest of the world put together.
But I would point out that we keep having trouble winning wars against opponents that have no navy, no air force, and no tanks. They hide in caves and in trees and they make bombs in their kitchens to blow up our troops. So what good is our military might if it can't bring victory in the wars we fight?
What about other categories?
Health? Nearly a third of the country is obese. Fifty million people don't have health insurance, and they won't be getting any if the Republicans get their way about repealing our landmark health reform bill. And we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the civilized world. Not great.
Transportation? You're joking, right? I once tried to take a train from Detroit to Washington D.C. and they told me I'd have to transfer to a bus in Pittsburgh. It takes three hours to get on a plane, and that's if they don't make you take off all your clothes. No greatness there.
Oh, I know, our political system. As Newt Gingrich put it:
"American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence... [It stems from] our assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."
Except when it came time to write the Constitution, God seemed to forget about blacks and women. Neither were granted full citizenship, or in the case of blacks, fully human status. Good maybe; not great.
I'm an American by birth and I like being an American. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
But so far as "exceptionalism" goes, I think it's a close cousin to Dr. Samuel Johnson's description of patriotism--"the last refuge of a scoundrel."
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org