Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?
The question proceeds of course, from an assumption -- 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 all are free.
And he ticks off a number of other measures -- literacy, life expectancy, math, exports, infant mortality -- by which, he says, America now lags 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.
There is something quintessentially us about that belief. The Japanese, we may presume, love Japan. Surely the Canadians feel a swelling pride at the sight of their flag, and the Spanish stand a little straighter at the playing of their national anthem. But does any other nation feel the need to so routinely assure itself and remind others that it is the most excellent of them all?
"America," says Sean Hannity with numbing regularity, is "the best, greatest nation God has ever given man on the face of the Earth." It might be said, that the seed of American greatness lies in the very need to be great, to raise the foam index finger and chant "USA! USA!" -- to live up to our own self-image.
Unfortunately, the seed of American self-delusion lies in the same place. To read the test scores, to watch the clown show that passes for TV news, to walk the boarded up streets of downtown Wherever, USA., to talk to a father about his kids' future, is to take the fictional news anchor's point:
Namely, that there is something sad about yelling, "We're number one!" when you are, in fact, not.
But -- and a character on the show reminds McAvoy of this -- we can be, always. The potential of it lies in America's endless capacity for reinvention, the path to it in America's matchless sense of mission. The nation has always risen to the challenge of greatness when it had a goal, a purpose to unite behind, a thing to get done. That is the story of the Revolution, the Union victory, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the Civil Rights Movement, the moon landing.
So what is our mission now? What is the goal toward which we strive in 2012? And therein lies the problem: you don't know either, do you? Bill Clinton did mention something about a bridge to somewhere or other. George W. Bush was handed a mission -- fighting terrorism -- on a golden tray and bungled it. President Obama, unlike candidate Obama, has yet to articulate a goal that excites and unites.
Like a knife's blade, greatness requires a whetstone to sharpen itself against. No whetstone presents itself in a nation where, as McAvoy notes, people define themselves by whom they voted for in the last election, a nation whose depth of division and lack of unifying principle now poison the very air, a nation where, to speak of greatness is, increasingly, to speak of history.
But what of the future?
That will require mission and purpose, the realization that who we are is bound up in the things -- audacious and spectacular things -- we come together to get done. We ought to spend more time deciding what those things will be, and less reassuring ourselves of our own wonderfulness.
True greatness, after all, is not declared. It is achieved.