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Opinion | The “greatest” country?

As we eat our hotdogs and burgers today, and as we watch the marvelous fireworks in tonight’s sky, as we scramble to calm our panicked dogs, we also must reflect.


Today is that day. The day where we celebrate our nation’s revolutionary, tumultuous, birth. Do not, for a second, believe it was an easy delivery. It wasn’t. And if not for superior leadership, and, probably more important, a tremendous amount of luck, we would not have our independence to celebrate today.

Today, we mark the day with barbecues, vacations, and, mostly, fireworks. Our big display in Birmingham tonight – Thunder on the Mountain – culminates our July 4 holiday and will scare the crap out of our dogs.

Let’s enjoy the hotdogs and hamburgers – never better than when cooked over a charcoal fire. Settle down with your tea or beer or bourbon (or weed) and watch the marvelous display from Vulcan Park on Red Mountain or from wherever in your city or town.

Celebrate. And reflect.

Celebrations are great opportunities to reflect on where we are. During all my recent birthdays, I look back at myself, where I started, where I am, and now, even, as I contemplate the end. In my reflections, I’m reminded of how often I’ve fallen short. How many times I could have done better and then didn’t. What I could have done differently but was too lazy to try. Sometimes it is simple stubbornness. Sometimes (maybe most times?) ignorance. Often just carelessness: Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or saying the wrong thing. Period.

So, use part of the day for reflection about our nation. Where are we today? Where are we going? Are we the greatest nation in the world?

Are we? If you said yes, why?

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My perspective may not be yours. It may not be anybody’s. But it’s mine. I own it. I’m a pretty average person: Middle-class, somewhat educated (master’s in English), married to the same woman for 43 years. I read a lot, binge crime series on Netflix, write a political column, and teach at a university. I’ve struggled with alcohol, sometimes get stoned, and was a bed-wetter until puberty. My family was dysfunctional, I once blew up a frog with firecracker (on July 4 when I was about 8 or 9 years old), I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve definitely pushed the line. And, like the United States of America as it was being born, dodged disaster because of a tremendous amount of luck.

I was once even a Republican.

As I reflect on the United States today, I am profoundly disappointed at where we are. For the first time in my life, our Supreme Court is taking away rights, transparently, while cynically pretending it is protecting them. Our Congress is as dysfunctional as my mom and dad were: She yelled at him about his considerable drinking and sentenced us to cruel punishments for real or perceived wrongs, like bringing home a C on our report cards or staying on our telephones (hard-wired, of course) too long. My father? He was drinking, then sometimes disappearing, then quietly coming home.

Still drinking. Still a drunk, until he died in 2009, though as far as I know he hadn’t consumed alcohol in years.

Veronica and I recently rewatched HBO’s “The Newsroom.” The 2010 series reminded us of what journalism once was. What little of that still exists today. Both of us are career journalists or were until crippling layoffs took my wife’s job after four decades and mine after as many decades when I got fired two years later for practicing the aggressive journalism as I had my entire career. Bill and Susan Britt rescued me when they asked if I would write a column for Alabama Political Reporter in 2015. 

This is the latest of no-telling-how-many Independence Day columns I’ve written. To me, it may be the saddest, at least to me.

“The Newsroom’s” Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, as written by Aaron Sorkin) gives us context on “the greatest nation” with his rant in the first episode of the show, when asked by a college coed why America is the best in the world.

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We are not the greatest nation, McAvoy says. Again, this is 2010, two years after Barack Obama became president. A black man in the White House was simply too much for many “patriotic” Americans to stand.

Even before then, I remember a white man standing next to me on a Birmingham street, both of us waiting for the light to change so we could walk across. An Alabama State Trooper car passed us, driven by a black officer.

The white guy looked at me (another white guy) and said: “I’ll never get used to a n—-r driving a State Trooper car.” And he walked on. I regret not calling him out (I wasn’t a Republican anymore), but I was young and still learning. There was no excuse, though, so I reflect about that, too.

Sometimes, however, I wonder what he thought when Obama won by a landslide and was sworn in as president. I have an idea about what he said, at least to himself if not out loud. 

Obama tilted some, including a man that would one day be a president himself, toward outward expressions of racism and hate. If you’re proudly out as a racist, there’s a pitifully short distance to misogyny, xenophobia, antisemitism, and homophobia.

And that’s where we are today, in 2023, as we celebrate our glorious nation and its very nearly stillbirth. We hung by a thread then, on this day in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was approved and published, and we may be hanging by an equally thin thread today.

Though the precise statistics are likely off in 2023, the truth is the same. Here is Sorkin, through Daniels as McAvoy, explaining why we are NOT the greatest nation in the world: 

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“(T)here is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. . . .”

Yes, McAvoy goes on. But it’s worth hearing or reading for any American who cares to reflect about our nation today (full transcript at Hear it or see it, then ask yourself some hard questions. Don’t lie to yourself. You can’t.

During the three-season run of “The Newsroom,” its personality defined by McAvoy’s first-episode monologue, there is hope for our nation throughout.

The geniuses who set up this experiment in democracy we call America, did not appear claiming they were establishing “the greatest nation in the world.” They gave us – me and you and all Americans – the belief we can be. Our ideals are grand, though remain unachieved, but those ideals are still there. Equality (we do not have it), freedom (we are losing it), well-being (we don’t acknowledge it), and justice (our best joke of all) – all profoundly fail us.

Yet, the preamble to our Constitution, written in 1787, says clearly: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . .” Not a perfect union at the outset or a perfect union predicted by any perceived deadline.

A more perfect union. That’s what McAvoy is telling us. We have a long, long way to go, and we are not pointed in the right direction. But we can. Can’t we?

As we eat our hotdogs and burgers today, and as we watch the marvelous fireworks in tonight’s sky, as we scramble to calm our panicked dogs, we also must reflect – each of us – that we are not headed toward where our Founders hoped we would go, and that as of now, in 2023, we are NOT the greatest country in the world.

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Maybe we can get there. Somehow. Some way. 

Some day.

Enjoy your Independence Day.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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