Muhammad Ali, as agile with words as with his fists, loved to proclaim, “I am the greatest”. He saw himself the preeminent boxer of his day, which he was. Even so, you always felt “the greatest” claim was made with a modicum of tongue in cheek, something that made his bragging all the more appealing. There is little doubt that we live in a pretty extraordinary country from which most of us benefit both individually and collectively. So why is it when I hear people, most especially our leaders, proclaim, “We are the greatest”, that I cringe? Perhaps it’s because, unlike the Champ, they do so with unequivocal seriousness, not as a metaphor but an unquestionable truth. Perhaps, these self-claims bother me because they bespeak not so much pride in country as a lack of national humility, which by implication suggests other nations are inferior.
Ali’s claim of being the greatest was credible because it was backed up by performance, but perhaps even more so because it was widely recognized by others including his own peers. But who is to really say which of anything, much less a country or a group is the greatest? At the very least one would want some outside confirmation. It’s not merely how we perceive ourselves, but also how others see us. At one time, an America “the greatest” claim probably resonated across the globe, albeit at times grudgingly. Today, in the aftermath of the Bush era’s disastrous unilateral (with the acquiescence of “the willing”) foreign policy, much of that acknowledgment and good will has dissipated. That’s exactly what came to mind as I watched four young international journalists weigh in on America’s standing at a C-Span recorded “Hearts and Minds” symposium. They came from Egypt, Bangladesh, Kenya and Brazil and each had spent six months here working as a Friendly Fellows at different newspapers across the country. Their home country’s relations with ours varied, but their message was uniform, expressed best by the Egyptian “we don’t hate you but we hate you”. That is to say that they admire much about our culture and our people, but are totally alienated by the current administration and policies. The Moslems among them feel we paint their faith with a single simplistic and negative brush. The Brazilian blames us for supporting her country’s former dictator and treating Brazil as some kind of geographic appendage.
The greatest is implies an America-centric view of the world. The downside of such thinking was expressed most tellingly by an anecdote told by Kenyan journalist Mugomo Munene. When terrorists bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, a few blocks from where he sat in a cafe, all Kenyans were horrified and in our corner. Then came the CNN et al news coverage reporting that “15 Americans and 225 other people died”. We are so used to such an American media bias that we take no notice, but the Kenyans did and it instantaneously reversed their attitude toward both the event and us. Why didn’t that report, they asked themselves, say 240 people died, among them 15 Americans? It seems like a nuanced difference, but it’s huge. The message it conveyed was that 15 American lives counted more than those 225 of their own citizens. When you’re the greatest, you come first, everyone else is an afterthought. Collateral damage. Multiply that story and that attitude thousands of times and you’ll understand what’s happened to our standing in the world; in fairness, a process that didn't just begin in the Bush years. Incorporate it into our foreign policy and presto, our current state. The greatest is transformed from credible claim to a hollow brag.
To me the claim of being the greatest is emblematic of an attitude that now pervades not only the United States but also the entire world. In one way or another we all either say or think that our way is the only right way, it’s the greatest. The Islamists make that claim but so do Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else, even if they don’t admit to it, or do it unconsciously. Collectively, we have taken on a kind of self-assured arrogance of self-proclaimed greatness that at best diminishes or eliminates any kind of legitimate dialogue and at worst is killing us. The idea that we are the greatest ultimately undermines us morally and threatens our security. Until we change our mindset, we seem destined to leave our children a world of such hot violence that global warming will seem like an irrelevant afterthought.
With regard to America’s claim of being the greatest, there is at least a sliver of hope. Those young correspondents reflected what many of us have heard from other quarters. We don’t hate America; we hate its policies and especially those currently in power. That leaves a huge burden on the desk of the next President, whoever she or he may be. There is the possibility of turning things around, which will take not merely words (thought they too are important) but also deeds. The world will be watching and so should each of us. If we blow this opportunity, people around the world my start hating Americans and not only their government. That will be our fault.
In the meantime, we the greatest await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.