Totally greatest country like ever

Mike suggests he believes that the United States is not the greatest country in the history of the world; I disagree, for manifold reasons I will detail if anyone cares. But I think he is right to argue that telling ourselves we are great, when we are demonstrably not, is no favor to the idea of American exceptionalism. I worry, like many people, that America is no longer a serious country; serious about its international responsibilities, serious about grappling with entitlements, serious about the need to invest in science and innovation and energy and, most symbolically, in space exploration.

That’s Jeffrey Goldberg replying to an op-ed written by Michael Kinsley under the highly informative title “U.S. is not greatest country ever.”

Very close parsers may wonder whether Kinsley’s emphasis is on the present tense:  Could he mean that we may once have been the greatest country ever, or may someday be it, just don’t happen to be today?  Similarly, I wonder if Goldberg’s description – setting aside quibbles about any details – doesn’t imply its opposite:  By the standards of greatness he seems to embrace, he seems to believe that U.S. superdupergreatness is in jeopardy, possibly a thing of the past.  In other words, the two may differ about what constitutes “greatness,” or even whether greatness is so great, but both seem to believe that something’s “wrong.”

But maybe it’s perfectly normal:  By the standards of what I’ll call for the sake of a blog post the Age of Materialism, going back to around the 18th Century or so by my calculations, the U.S. probably counts  as the greatest materialist country so far – the most materially productive, with the dominant materialist ideology, culture, and mode of production, and for the most part the greatest material capacity for destruction, too.  By every absolute material standard, the U.S. probably is or has been the greatest country ever – not even close.  If we start adjusting for relative wealth and power in historical context, then there are clearly some competitors.  If we start adjusting for non-material or unquantifiable notions … then we are entering the realm of ideas and opinion – requiring us to step out of our own age (probably impossible).

So, as of now, by our own preferred standards, we’re tops in our field – so there!  But if we start looking forward, we may wonder what “greatest ever” as of 2010 AD is worth.  Maybe we are entering a new age – or a new phase of this one – and our “greatness” will inevitably become more a fact of past history, than of whatever ever-unfolding present.  Under many scenarios, our decline may be more important than whatever our status in absolute terms, and certainly than our past status.

Maybe the future is the greatest country ever, and, like it or not, we’re just a part of it.

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2 comments on “Totally greatest country like ever

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  1. What’z with all the space talk?

    The Lost Paradise of Star Wars Trek is THE dispiriting example?

    A New Last Final Frontier is manifestly our destiny?

    Neuro-ly is kinda makes sense. Only space has the space anymore to accomodate the dopamine fuelled conservative quest for….questing.

    But still, I don’t get it.

  2. @ bob:
    It’s the greatest pissing contest of them all, and it has been said that the diffusion of sunlit urine crystals in the vacuum is one of the most startlingly beautiful of all the sights offered our valiant astronauts on their journeys.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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