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.
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.