So, there’s this Newsroom clip that I see pop up on my feed about once every couple weeks or so. I hate it. Oh, I hate it. With a passion. And I think it needs to be killed with fire.
It’s the opening of the pilot for the now-renowned television series, and it starts out with a smug newsman answering the question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” on a live television show. The question is asked by a young woman. There are two other guests on the show with said newsman. One says that the reason we are the greatest country in the world is freedom. Another is championing the NEA and says it’s because of diversity. And then Mr. Smug Newsman answers:
Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money. It costs votes. It costs airtime. And column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart then how come they lose so goddamn always?
Wait a second — liberals lose all the time? It’s not that simple. We’re winning. I mean, it’s gradual, but if you look at the trajectory of American history, the conservatives are ultimately losing. The liberals got rid of slavery, of segregation, of voting discrimination, of a hell of a lot of things. We’ve set up social security, and a forty hour workweek, and we actually have somewhat of a union system, and there’s a minimum wage, and gay marriage is legal, and our President is black…no, we’re not where we need to be. But I’m sick and tired of this hopeless thinking that liberals can’t win. This defeatist attitude that we can’t win, the attitude that discourages so many young people from going to the polls — it’s bullshit. People died for the rights we have today — not just abroad, but here in America, on our streets and in our factories and in our cities.
Liberals have plenty of backbone. And we’re scratching and clawing and stretching for every fucking inch we can. And like it or not, we’re winning. We don’t “lose always.” The conservatives are the ones losing. We’re winning the battle. Now is not the time to be discouraged, but to be encouraged and fucking fight harder. This defeatist attitude has the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and it really gets on my goddamn nerves.
But against my better judgment, I’m gonna press “play” and keep watching this nonsense.
And with a straight face, you’re gonna sit there and tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The U.K. France. Italy. Germany. Spain. Australia. BELGIUM has freedom. Two hundred and seven sovereign states in the world, like, a hundred and eighty of them have freedom.
Whew. Finally something I agree with. And here, I begin to calm down. It’s healthy to realize that other countries have “freedom.” We could use some of that humility and learn about other countrys’ attitudes as we combat classism, racism, sexism…
…And you, Sorority Girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day…
OK. OK. Give me a sec.
You know why America is not the greatest country in the world?
It’s because a TV pilot can become a fucking blockbuster hit because it chooses — out of all the options in the world — to showcase a young woman being shamed, first and foremost, not for being wrong but for being young, and being a woman (in contrast to an older man).
I mean, this isn’t nonfiction. The writers aren’t just reporting what actually happened — they CHOSE this setup. And this isn’t a random moment either — this is at the very beginning of the make-or-break pilot of a major HBO series. This is the place where you use the focus groups and do the studies and see what the heck is going to catch. And the fact that what was chosen, out of all the available options, was a young woman being bullied by an older white male in one of the most cliche-ly, sexist setups in TV history…the fact that this was what was chosen because the makers thought it would make America cheer, and the fact that America DID cheer — THAT is a leading reason why America is not the greatest country in the world.
I mean, before we even get to the meat of the question it’s supposedly a-ok to insult a young woman who asks an innocent question and think that’s fashionable — and not only insult her, but think that the fact that she’s of the age where she might be in a sorority and the fact that she’s a “girl” should be a self-evident insult.
I used to be skeptical about sorority members, too, before I got to know some sorority members who slaughtered those ignorant stereotypes. Now, I’ve never been in a fraternity or sorority, but that experience came from interacting with plenty of young women who have, in teaching college courses and in serving as a writing tutor. And I have become thoroughly convinced that, contrary to the stereotype, most “sorority girls” are outstanding leaders who take their connections to their friends and to their community extremely seriously. Many of them are some of the most diligent, disciplined, conscientious students (and leaders) on campus.
It’s already not fashionable for young people to vote, and many of these sorority girls are more likely to vote, it seems to me, than the average Joe their age — simply because they are so community-minded. The fact that the makers of the show can have this newsman take it for granted that this woman will not vote and can think that people will nod unthinkingly in agreement is a big problem. And the fact that he implies that her voting would be unintentional is outrageous — it encroaches on the notion that perhaps they shouldn’t vote. That stereotype of young college-aged women being supposedly so naive that if they go to a voting booth it’s going to be an “accident” — no. Just no. They are citizens of this country and should be treated as such.
Let’s criticize opinions, not an entire group of people who we imply are unfit to vote because of their gender and age.
…there’s some things you should know. One of them is there’s 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. A hundred and seventy-eighth 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.
Whew. Agreement again. Maybe there is a redeeming quality to this. But then he says…
Now none of this is the fault of a twenty-year-old college student, but you nonetheless are without a doubt a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I dunno what the fuck you’re talkin’ about. Yosemite?
But 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, oh, we didn’t scare so easy.
I’m lost. Completely and totally lost.
When the goddamn fuck was this magical moment? I mean, I’m the first in line to say we aren’t the greatest country in the world. But I absolutely think we are not the member of the “worst, period, generation, period, ever, period.” This sexist asshole thinks that this generation is inferior? That it stood up for was right and fought for moral reasons? When? When have we done this?
Was it back in the 90s, when our incarceration rates skyrocketed due to a war on drugs, and when racism against poor blacks was much worse than it is today? Was it in the 80s, when racism fueled the first war on drugs and quickly made us the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, punishing marijuana possession as a crime worse than manslaughter? Was it during the years of Nixon’s corruption, when under-the-radar racism got you elected in this country? Was it before the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Before women could vote? Before slavery was outlawed? Before we had unions or forty-hour workweeks? When was this magic moment?
When have we NOT waged war on poor people in this country?
And “never beat our chest” — excuse me, but we’ve been beating our goddamn chests ever since a bunch of rich people held the Boston Tea Party that set off a series of riots that, in turn, made us a country. I’m sorry. What time in our past of being “proud to be an American” do you want to go back to as the seminal moment of our supposed long-lost humility?
And “acted like men” — I’m sorry, what the fuck is that supposed to mean? Right after the “sorority girl” insult, you put “acting like men” on a pedestal? I feel like I should be more angry about that, but I don’t really even know what that means. What the hell is wrong with acting like a woman? I don’t get it. This is stupid.
And “aspiring to intelligence” — news flash: America’s anti-intellectual streak is deep and stretches to the beginning of this country. We have, since we became a nation, been suspicious of “intelligence.” As Isaac Asimov put it in 1980, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
And when the fucking hell did we not identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election? I mean, we’re still patting our forefathers on the back for unanimously voting in George Washington.
And not scaring so easy? Heck, we became a nation because rich people were afraid of taxes. And America has been afraid of minorities — native Americans, blacks, mexican immigrants, women — since, like, forever.
When was this magical moment when we were the greatest country in the world?
Because I’m telling you right now, as a black man living in America, if I had a single-use time machine to go to any moment in America’s past and live there, I wouldn’t use it. Fuck that shit. I don’t want to be brutalized by police, segregated against, slaved, barred from office, discriminated against in the job market anymore than I already am…I’ll stay right here where I am, thank you very much.
And then, to add insult to injury:
We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men. Men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?
No, no, no, no, no. The men of yesterday, who thought that minorities and women were inferior, and who had even less respect for science than we do today, were not “informed.” And I don’t want to go back to some magical moment when yesterday’s “informed men” were at the helm of this country. No. Let’s have scientists, regardless of sex, inform us. Let’s have experts in various fields, with the information we have at our disposal due to amazing technological and field-specific advances, inform us. I’ve had enough of “informed men” defining what makes us the greatest country in the world.
Unlike most who cheer at that clip, I don’t want to go back to 1776 or any moment up to the present time. My patriotism, insofar as it relates to the founding fathers and some magical yesterday, died when it hit me that yesterday’s America woulda been hell for me. And this makes a big difference — most Americans I know are desperately trying to get back to the America that “used to be.” I don’t want that. I think that America was shit. And I’m not saying that to be ultra-social-justicey. I really think it was shit.
I mean…what if someone said to you, “By the way, Thomas Jefferson had a few white slaves while he was preaching about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and he described them as if they were primitive animals. They happened to be your ancestors.” Would you think the same about Jefferson? No, you wouldn’t, probably. You’d probably think he was a goddamn hypocrite.
I am not trying to get to some kind of pure America defined by yesterday or “make America great again.”
The cold, hard truth is that America was never the greatest country in the world.
And no, I’m not saying that because it’s controversial. I’m saying that because I think it’s true. Killing or enslaving millions of innocent people because we want to bully the Japanese or Native Americans or blacks into submission does not, in any sense of the word, make us a great nation. Neither does hundreds of years of stealing lives through slavery and segregation. Powerful? Yes. Great? No.
This does not, of course, mean that I disrespect our nation. I do respect the people of our nation — insofar as they relate to a different patriotism. Not the patriotism of the founding fathers. But the patriotism that sees each individual as of great and profound value, the kind of patriotism that wants the best for all of those in this country, as opposed to patriotism for some bullshit idea created by the founding fathers.
I do not respect a soldier who fights for an America that represents bullshit ideals at the expense of marginalized people. Your service for this country does not give you a right to shit on the struggling people within it.
I DO respect a soldier who fights for the individuals within America, for them to have better lives, for them to be equal, for them to create a more loving world. That’s worth respect.
This is the way I think of policemen, too. I do not respect, at all, a policeman who even remotely thinks his job is to keep certain classes or colors of people in their place, or who thinks he is in a position of authority more than he is in a position of service.
I DO have the utmost respect for a policeman whose interest is in keeping the citizens under his responsibility safe, who serves humbly instead of having his billy-club at the ready to hammer down his authority, who will make damn sure he nor anyone else covers up for a racist or classist asshole cop.
So I’m a patriot — but my patriotism is the same as that felt by the tired slave working another long day on Jefferson’s plantation — the warmth in his heart after seeing those he struggles with, and the determination to fight for a better tomorrow. That passion, that comaraderie, that desire for a sense of national justice and respect for all those with the nation’s borders — that’s the patriotism that stirs my spirit.
Because that’s the only form of patriotism that got me where I am today. And the other kind, the kind looking back to some ideal of America that supposedly is great instead of realizing the flaws and transgressions within America and admitting, openly, that the greatness of America depends on the concern and welfare of those within its borders, forcing us to look forward for the fulfillment of justice and equality…the kind that denies this for some fabled vision of beauty for a few overprivileged white men, in a form that many of us have never seen…that patriotism, I have absolutely no respect for.
America is not the greatest country in the world. And I’m not sure that should even be our goal. Maybe, as fellow human beings, we should concentrate on making the whole world a better place instead of making an elite “American” class a utopia that has earned the right to shit on the rest of the world and rub in our superiority like a spoiled, taunting four-year old.