Three cheers for the United States

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We’re the greatest! We’re the best! We’re the ones who can thump our chest!

We hear a lot of that lately, and not just as part of the Convention-al wisdom, be it Republican or Democratic. It might even be part of our national DNA: USA! USA! USA! It’s hard to remember anyone chanting: USA! Grenada! and the Bahamas! That might not bring many people to their feet.

Yes, the U.S. won more medals than anyone else — 104 in all — at the 2012 Olympics. In a more telling statistic, though—the medal count per capita— we ranked 50th, with one medal per 3.4 million residents. And who ranked at the top in the per capita medal count? You guessed it — Grenada and the Bahamas.

Yes, we are great, though not as our president claimed when he said we were safer now and more respected throughout the world after our military escapades in the Middle East. Somehow that sounds like our medal count, though even flimsier. Or bragging that we would go to war when needed. Maybe he meant we would struggle for peace on every front.

We love our country, and with ample reason, but not because of what we hear at times, like being the greatest democracy on earth. James Madison, the main framer of our constitution, was very explicit in saying that power should be in the hands of wealthy white males. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

We say all this not to belittle our great and wonderful nation. The oft-cited decline of America today, in fact, may well be exaggerated. Columnist David Brooks says that we spend more on research and development than all other industrialized nations combined. It is true that we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion. But America has 22 of the 30 top universities in the world, and graduates more engineers per capita than India or China. (USA, USA…)

Hooray! Yippee! We built it! We demolished it! And now we’re building it again!

Our Yippeeism may be partly due to the human tendency to identify with the group, which goes back to the earliest days of our race. Group consciousness is the most archaic and elemental mode of identity, followed later by individualism and, finally, the move to transcendent awareness. That last would sound more like the cry: Help the Poor! Work for Peace! Destroy the Nukes! And Only Love!

So, OK, there’s nothing wrong with the move to Yippee it up, and we may as well enjoy our companionship with the chimps and the monkeys.

American exceptionalism, though, takes us down another path. Though there is much to admire in the nation’s history, it is hardly the paragon of virtue that many would like to think—as shown by our history of expansionism, our treatment of native peoples, our wartime conduct, and our refusal to sign most human rights treaties and global warming agreements, just for starters.

Author Mark Townsend speaks of “the beauty of failure in an age of success,” and Ken Wilbur has written of good power, which he calls “growth hierarchies,” which are needed to protect children, the poor, and all those who have no power. It is the selfless use of power, so needed in today’s world. Larger than mere flaunting, brute force, or domination, it comes from within and lies mostly hidden. The poor and the weak are favored in such a world. Those with true power will stand by them, hardly noticed and rarely extolled. So HOORAY for them. We’ve got some YIPPEES left, after all.

Kozeny has worked as a teacher, counselor, and in pastoral ministry. He can be reached by e-mail to tko-z@sdc.org.