"We are the greatest nation on the planet."
The doctor looked up from his procedure and had made the statement not with bravado, but with a near-childlike certainty. It was simply accepted. A fact. Whatever context that had steered our conversation to his conclusive finality is faded and forgotten. But his statement rings strong and bold, and simple in memory: "We are the greatest nation on the planet."
The Danish nurse working in the room with us, one of the sweetest people I've ever had the pleasure to know, waited a moment and offered a gentle dissent to the doctor's conclusion. "I may disagree with you," she said simply, with a genuine smile.
The doctor realized suddenly that his statement may have alienated our European coworker and apologized graciously.
For days after that brief exchange, I was mulling over what makes us the "greatest nation." Or is that fact unsubstantiated, just so much fluff? Statistically speaking (No American is comfortable with these statistics and many dispute them heatedly), we fall well short of other nations in education, life expectancy, production, and--it has to be said--soccer. We excel in higher education, educating many of the world's best and brightest in our universities. We have, by a staggering degree, the biggest military in the world. (The largest air force in the world is the US Air Force. The second largest air force in the world? The US Navy. No kidding.) We also have the highest GDP, highest average income, and are among the best in property owning rights, human rights, and freedom of speech.
Why exactly do we wave the flag on the Fourth of July? Our general satisfaction with the status quo of our government is ringing incredibly low, and has perpetually been that way for much of the last two decades, perhaps much longer, depending which values you esteem and which ruler you use to measure. What's there to wave about? We make bombs burst in air, don powdered wigs, and recite pledges of allegiance to a flag representing a system of government with which most are disillusioned and frustrated.
So are we the greatest nation on the planet?
Maybe, maybe not. But of all the superlatives we claim in the world, one stands out to me:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
In the document that declared us a nation independent, the faltering, fighting, fallible founding fathers established something the world had never really seen--a system based upon principles, a government establish around a concept of ideal and intrinsic rights. Nations theretofore had touted lofty and noble sentiment, and have since. But never in the history of our planet had a country been established upon an idea. All men and women are equal. Every person on this earth, regardless of the happenstance of their birth, religion, race, wallet, etc, is entitled as a human being to life, to freedom, to pursuing happiness as they see fit. To base a nation upon that kind of ideal was novel, dangerous, radical.
I don't know if we're the "best country in the world." There are many dark marks in our history, and perhaps even in our current state, where we have faltered in honoring and upholding these principles. We still struggle treating each man and woman as an equal. The instituted government has often fallen short of securing these rights. Still, our country is built upon an ideal foundation that stands even if the structure built upon it groans and creaks and threatens to fall. Those principles remain.
So on this day where we contemplate our independence, I take solace not in being the greatest nation in the world (and is it a contest, after all?), but that we live in a system established upon such abiding and eternal ideals. That is really what the flag represents, and reason enough to wave it.