We’re Not The Best (And That’s Okay)

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466280491Growing up in suburban Mentor, Ohio, I had a dream. My dream was to be the number one draft pick for the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers and Indians after winning a NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship at the University Of Kentucky.

This at no point during my youth seemed like a lofty goal. It seemed attainable and inevitable.

I excelled in the various little leagues, at least to some degree (or just in my mind). Though as I worked my way to junior high, it seemed just a tad unlikely that I would be the top pick for three major sports. So I compromised, deciding I would simply be drafted by the three aforementioned local teams, but not necessarily the first pick.

First round, though, of course.

Through it all, my parents remained supportive. Realistically, they were probably chuckling to themselves. My brother, however, would laugh at my face. Not only did he question, nay, outright squash my dreams of professional athleticism, but he also was willing to let me know early on that Kentucky was not in the cards.

At the time, it sucked.

“But I’m the best! Everyone says I’m the best. How can I not be the best?”

Fact

Though my world was shaken – again, we’re talking about the confines of a suburb – my brother’s honesty ultimately turned into the proverbial blessing in disguise. Because it was broken to me early on that I was, despite my active imagination, not perfect, I was able to reevaluate to some extent what I saw myself doing in life.

During this same period of American youth, we also are taught a similarly unrealistic fact about our existence.

“This is the greatest country on Earth.”

Unfortunately, the United States does not have a brutally honest big brother (except for, maybe, the NSA). So this mirage of international superiority by birthright permeates throughout our lifetimes, whether it is in seemingly harmless conversations or any number of musical ballads that proclaim God’s favoritism of our nation over the other 200-some sovereign nations of the world.

Continuing on with this national theater is only hurting us. After all, if we are indeed the best, then any number of problems we hear about in the news, such as crumbling public schools, infrastructure, corruption, must either be overblown or not very serious. Our incentive to act is lessened.

So in the spirit of my brother’s verbal ruthlessness that has proved so useful to me over the years, I offer this like-minded wisdom.

The United States of America is not the greatest country in the world. And y’know what? That’s okay.

“At least you’re not French…”

A couple reasons come to mind that inherently prove no matter what your local vote-seeking Congressperson says, we quite simply are not the best.

First, the U.S. is simply too damn big. Our 50 states are constantly fighting one another to lure businesses across state lines, thus drawing talent away from certain regions. Universities, too, play a competitive role that makes it impossible to achieve the unrealistic goal of “best country on Earth.”

Some may say our competitive spirit brought on by capitalism pushes us to be greater, like an amateur athlete going against a seasoned pro. That might be true in some circumstances. But ultimately someone’s going to be left on the court with broken ankles.

Whereas one state might be a pretty perfect-ish place to live, there’s another in this country wrangled in debt, depression and poverty. Our 50 states are not, never will be, and never were, uniformly the best places to live in the world over any other number of democracies that exist.

Additionally, “the best” is completely subjective. In an overly simplistic scenario, a family suffering from poverty in the United States is not better off than an aristocratic French family living it up in Paris. Yet the message we as Americans are taught at an early age is that we are better off in this country no matter what.

Can’t afford groceries or rent this month? That’s okay! At least you’re not French…?

“The Swiss We Are Not”

Our political leaders might truly believe we live in the best nation on Earth, but the data disagrees.

Happiness? The United States rarely cracks the top 10.

Health care system? “The best country on Earth” came in at 37 between Costa Rica and Slovenia in a 2000 World Health Organization ranking. However, the WHO no longer produces a ranking due to the complexity of the task. Rest assured the United States is not considered the best by any definition.

Environment? Keep scrolling down and you’ll find the United States at 23.

Infrastructure? The Swiss we are not.

Again, the United States is one of the largest nations on Earth. There are undoubtedly exceptions to this data.

But we are not taught “exceptions” in our early American days. We are taught that this is uniformly the greatest nation on Earth. Any world traveler can tell you that yes; other nations have certain things figured out better than we do.

What we do with this information is important. Do we stubbornly reject it and cling to nationalism? Or do we accept that there is room for astronomical improvement in American society by learning from Swiss infrastructure and Scandinavian environmental policies?

To be fair to the States, we have set the unrealistic bar of international superiority. But we did set it. If that bar pushed us to achieve great things, then great. Maybe it did at one point, like when President Kennedy declared we would send a man to the moon in 10 years time.

However, in contemporary times it seems to have only fermented nationalism without merit. Now we are the best because we can theoretically win at a game of Risk. But when it comes to livability, where are we?

Our current measuring stick has caused us more harm than good. Like a drunk forced into rehab, we need to sober up, get a grip on reality, and accept the obvious truth that we need to make some fundamental changes in our country.

Until then, we are just a kid on the court who is about to be severely disappointed.

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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