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Is America the Greatest Land on Earth?

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Message Richard Schiffman

I suspect many will agree with me that the time has come to retire this bit of Fourth of July rhetoric. Don't get me wrong -- I do love this country, though no longer as a smitten teen. It is more like someone who has been married a long time and has seen the shortcomings of their mate, but still loves that person, despite -- or maybe because of -- their all-too-human flaws.

Like any couple, America and I have had our quarrels over the years. I can't honestly say that the U.S. is predominantly a force for good in the world today. We fight too many wars, scuttle international treaties on climate change, consume a disproportionate share of the world's dwindling resources. On the home front, there is the widening income gap between the rich and the poor, the shallow materialism of our popular culture, the rising tide of incivility in our public lives. The list goes on...

But at the end of the day, America is where I was born and will likely die. There are ties to the land and to the people that defy rational analysis. Moreover, this country has stood for some wonderful things in the past, and may well do so again -- if, and this is a big if -- we can reawaken our democratic instincts, egalitarianism and spirit of fair play. I confess to having had goose bumps when Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," was sung at Zuccotti park during one of my visits there last fall.

This was indeed a land of economic opportunity and liberty for my maternal grandparents fleeing the pograms of the Ukraine in the early 20th century. My paternal grandfather rose from being a delivery boy on Wall Street to owning a small brokerage firm of his own. Thanks to my immigrant ancestors -- and to America -- I enjoy a standard of living and degree of freedom to do and say as I wish. I enjoy the personal security that remains rare in the world.

So why won't I say that this is the greatest land on earth? For starters, because no land is the greatest land. Greatness is a pie that all have a piece of, but none can claim as their own exclusive possession.

I lived in rural India for five years. India was, and indeed remains -- despite impressive recent advances -- a poor land struggling to fully enter the developed world. Yet some Indians told me that theirs was the greatest culture on earth, based not on its material riches and military prowess, but its spiritual tradition which has brought yoga and meditation to the world.

Life in India is slower paced and more humanly scaled than in the U.S. People do not have much, but in my experience they often seem happier, more at peace with themselves than many Americans. So is India the greatest land on earth? No more than America is. India, like all countries, is great in some aspects, but falls down in others.

The U.S. is today the world's sole superpower, unmatched in political sway, economic clout and military might. Yet greatness has moral and spiritual dimensions as well which is equally if not more important. The gorilla in the room is big, but that doesn't make him great. Which gets to my unease with America today. For untold millions around the globe, the U.S. is feared, but not admired and respected, still less loved as we once almost universally were. What went wrong?

if I were to ask this question of one of my Indian friends, they might answer that America, like so many empires before it, has become too cocksure of its own superiority. It has come to confuse material force with moral power. My Indian friends would hasten to add that they have no quarrel with the grand ideals upon which our nation was founded -- democracy, equality of opportunity, free speech, openness to the immigrant and the poor. It isn't our words and intentions, but our failure to act on them that disappoints our erstwhile friends around the world.

Many Americans are feeling disappointed too. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that slightly less than half of us agree with the statement "our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others" -- down from 60 percent who believed this in 2002.

Oddly enough, I take this as a good sign that we are becoming more reflective as a nation, more willing to acknowledge our failures (if the Occupy movement is any measure) and one would hope to begin again to work to set things right.

That is where real greatness lies -- not in boasting that you have already achieved it, but in working tirelessly to become better. A great land is not one which believes in the glorious ideals of its past, but which works tirelessly to renew its struggle to put them into practice. And it is always a struggle, never a done deal. If we Americans can get back to work on that, then we will have earned the right to once more call ourselves great.

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Richard Schiffman is the author of two spiritual biographies and is a poet based in New York City, as well as a freelance journalist. His passions are his love of nature, studying the world's great mystical traditions and activist writing and (more...)
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