Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Comparison Voodoo - Excelling in a Field of One

One of those annoying feel-good nationalistic phrases one always hears:

"America is the *best* country in the world!"

The truth is, the people spouting such nonsense don't have a clue what they are talking about. What they are really saying is "I need to feel a sense of superiority!" Rather a defensive attitude, dontcha think?

But to get back to the actual words they use, "best" is a comparative; you can't be best at something without comparing yourself to someone else. So, to be a real argument, two things must be in place:

  1. There must be a field of candidates to compare
  2. The must be a standard of comparison, so that we have a means to evaluate the candidates and rank them against each other
If you look at the reasoning behind such nonsensical statements (actually, there is no reasoning there, but for the moment, let's assume there is), the field of candidates is, in effect, a field of one, with a few patsies thrown in to take the fall. To display their hidden "logic":

"America is the *best* country in the world!
(which consists of America, North Korea, Rwanda, and Egypt)"

These people have never done a true comparison with, well, comparable countries: the other industrialized democracies in the world. Now, there is nothing preventing them from doing so, and perhaps coming to a legitimate conclusion that the United States is indeed the best, based on some standards they choose. But their agenda, as I stated above, isn't really to do a critical comparison, in order to, for instance, see if there is something we might learn to improve our quality of life. They simply are grasping at a way to feel good. Understandable, yes, but such needy self-congratulation obscures realistic self-reflection, and is ultimately an obstacle to tackling our very real problems.

What follows is a post I wrote in a public forum in response to one such presumption of superiority:

- - - - -

Poster: But I stand by my opinion that ours is as good as it gets.

I'm asking, on what do you base your opinion, other than:

  1. it works for you
  2. our system is better than, say, North Korea, Rwanda, or Egypt?
Have you considered, in forming your opinion that "the one-of-a-kind democracy that we enjoy here in the United States is an ideal combination of socialism and capitalism," countries such as:

  1. Australia
  2. Canada
  3. England
  4. Belgium
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Denmark
  7. Sweden
  8. Norway
  9. Germany
  10. Switzerland

Do you think our current winner-take-all 2-party electoral systems are better or more democratic (perhaps defined as better representation of the views of the electorate, and a more diverse political dialogue) than the systems in these countries such as proportional representation and ranked choice voting?

Do you think our shielding of the president from any real questioning and debate is superior democracy to the weekly question session the British Prime Minister must put in before the House of Commons?

Do you think our non-guaranteed vacation of any kind is better than 6-8 weeks of guaranteed paid vacation?

Do you think our superior levels of violence, incarceration, and state murder (death penalty) are indicative that our society is a superior blend of socialism and capitalism?

When I hear people voice opinions such as yours, I'm curious as to the basis of those opinions, as they don't seem to be born out by any facts.

Another thing to consider is the formation of our democracy. Certainly it was a great step forward, and superior to the British system it came out of (though not perhaps superior to the systems of the many more indigenous people's systems that existed at that time). However, it included slavery, excluded women, and was hardly democratic. It reflected the culture of the time, which you would agree is far more ignorant than we are now. Though the United States led the way, consider the fact that all other democracies have been formed since that time, and 1) have been able to learn from the mistakes of other democracies and, 2) were formed closer to modernity, and thus should be increasingly a better adaptation to modern society (not always the case, as we can see with the Weimar Republic). Though our system has changed, that growth has not always been healthy (the growth of the institution of the corporation, for instance) and it is a slow process to break away from old institutions. Certainly one has to ask if more recently formed democracies are better adapted to modern society and thought than ours.

Though I understand the desire of people to "feel good" about their countries and cultures, I think that becomes a problem when that need is assumed to be the equivalent of critical self-examination. It is possible to both feel good while being critical, something I know from my own collaborative experiences in the arts. I wish we, as a nation, would learn how to do so.

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