America Beyond Compare?

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“Anything you can do, I can do better.”
–Irving Berlin, America’s songwriter

Why does everything American have to be better than everything else?

My mom lives in a comfortable community in South Florida, as does a friend’s dad, whom I saw recently for the first time in decades. His first words to me were, “Your mother lives in the number two community around here. We’re number one.”

Google the phrase “America is the greatest country in the world,” and you’ll get thousands of links, mostly to politicians falling over themselves to be the best at characterizing America as the best. (A similar search for New Zealand, a darn good country, yields six.) Some like to add that God, The Best of the best, has sanctioned this view.

America may even be the greatest country in the universe! It’s obviously better than, say, Bhutan, whose GNP is 162nd out of 194 sovereign nations. (Maybe that’s why the Bhutanese prefer to measure GNH, or Gross National Happiness; Business Week, hardly a touchy-feely publication, rated Bhutan the happiest country in the world in 2006.)

Candidates for public office further embarrass themselves by insisting that Americans are the smartest and greatest people in the world, especially when we support said candidates. When we choose their opponents, it’s because our innate brilliance has been corrupted by an evil force like (1) the left wing media, (2) right wing talk show hosts or (3) the Devil, who, depending on whom you talk to, is either (1) or (2).

I love my street, but I don’t know if Middle Crescent Drive is the best block in town. Maybe Lower or Upper has more to offer. My neighborhood, Laurel Canyon, is a sweet slice of L.A., but so are Coldwater and Topanga. While we’re on the subject, let’s stipulate that Earth is a way cool planet. But can’t it just be what it is without ruining the self-esteem of all the other celestial bodies?

True champions in areas that call for individual achievement — like tennis, swimming and chili cooking — tend not to brag about it. Think Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson or Stephen Hendry (snooker legend). Granted, Muhammed Ali was a showboat, but his charm and an ironic wink made him the exception that proves the rule. (There are plenty of great athletes who grandstand, but we needn’t concern ourselves with them.)

Of course, a healthy competitiveness is a fine and necessary thing. It keeps the species on its toes — all species, come to think of it. And it’s a lot more fun to win than to lose. We love stories about people who work harder than the rest to become world class entrepreneurs or chess masters. (Deep Blue, the computer that beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 2002, has nothing to apologize for.)

With the possible exception of the Dalai Lama and a few other enlightened beings, we’re all in the habit of competing with and comparing ourselves to those around us, from the guy we’re trying to outrun on the (stationary!) treadmill at the gym to the unintelligible computer service-person who holds our technological fate in his hands. We feel superior to the maniac who just cut us off on the freeway, even though he might be rushing to the hospital to save a life. And we beat ourselves up when we hear an eight year-old girl nail that Clementi Sonatina we never quite mastered, even though the kid may have practiced 12 hours a day since she was three.

Most of our comparing and judging is normal, even reflexive. When we need to elevate ourselves at the expense of others, though, even winners often lose. (As another great American songwriter, Randy Newman, reminds us, “It’s Lonely At The Top.”)

Politicians and other America-firsters would do well to see the absurdity of insisting we’re always the best. There’s a psychological term for this kind of delusion: It’s called the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” and it’s named for Garrison Keillor’s fictional town in A Prairie Home Companion, where “all the children are above average.”

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