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March 1, 2012

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You often hear people refer to America as “the greatest country on Earth.” This honorific is sometimes prefaced by disgust (“Terrorists continue to threaten the greatest country on Earth”), sometimes in triumph, (“Shaun White winning his fourth gold medal just proves once again that we are the greatest country on Earth”). And it’s almost always linked to entitlement, as in “How can the greatest country on Earth not provide affordable health care to its own citizens?” We say it all the time, but how do we know we are truly the greatest country on Earth?

First of all, who besides Americans believes this unsubstantiated claim? Did the United Nations take a vote and determine without a doubt that we are in fact better than everyone else at the table? My guess is that diplomats would vote for their own country—but what do I know?

Is it because of our religious beliefs? Is “one nation, under God” a reference to God blessing our combined union of individual states, or can it be misinterpreted as we are the “one nation” God recognizes? Ask 10 Walmart customers to make that distinction and you’ll be scared to death at the answers.

Is it because everyone wishes they were American? I have several friends in foreign countries. Not one of them feels slighted about having been born somewhere other than America. In fact, most feel fortunate to have a clearer perspective of the world than we do. And none of them claim their own country is any better than any other.

Fact is, I’ve never heard this outrageous claim from those of my friends who are well traveled, either. Maybe it’s because those who’ve experienced other cultures can appreciate the differences, and that they are unique, but not necessarily better or worse. If you’ve had the pleasure of navigating language barriers, foreign cuisine and alternative creature comforts then you know what I mean.

My first excursion outside of our borders was at age 21 when I took a two-month, 10-country backpacking trip through Europe. When I speak of the trip to European friends now they cringe at the idea that anyone can truly experience 10 different countries in such a short amount of time, but they commend the effort anyway. “At least his venture abroad wasn’t limited to spring break in Cancun,” I can imagine them thinking.

Anyway, among the many people we met on that journey, the Canadian travelers intrigued me because they all sported patches of their country’s flag on their backpacks. I quickly learned this outward declaration of national pride was in fact intended to help differentiate them from their loud mouthed neighbors to the South—us. Thankfully my friend and I were able to somewhat dispel the horrible stereotypes we Americans are saddled with around the globe by keeping our minds open to new ideas.

I’ve found it’s typically those who haven’t spent much, if any, time outside of the U.S. who feel qualified to believe, and state often, that America is the greatest country on Earth. How do they know? What are they basing this on? Hopefully not Fox News.

We Americans, including myself sometimes, can’t seem to see past our own front porches. We take pride in Walmart’s low prices even though they’re killing the charm and originality of the small businesses our neighbors own (you know, the ones America was built upon). We’re morbidly obese, on anti-depressants and addicted to at least one unhealthy vice. Our idea of “traveling” is a trip to the Gulf Coast one week a year. And you better be in a pew on Sunday or you’re going to Hell.

by

March 1, 2012

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Twain and travel

Mark Twain began his career as a travel writer (The Innocents Abroad) and would testify of how travel defeats one's prejudice and improves one's outlook on the world at large. Yes, America is one hell of a great place and I am greatful to be from here. However, I have had the privilidge of world travel myself, and I find much to admire and emulate pretty much everywhere I go.

mike r more than 2 years ago

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