Was America ever “the greatest country in the world”?

Posted: July 4, 2013 in politics, reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Here’s a link to a clip from a new HBO series, “The Newsroom”, which someone has posted to youtube under the name “The most honest three minutes in television history, EVER”


To put it simply enough, the first half of it was good and thought-provoking and progressive in the questions it poses. The second half, from “we used to be” onwards, was sentimental nonsense founded in nostalgia not reality.

The first half asks difficult questions of the mainstream American consensus. The second half flees in panic from the unpleasant truths the first half hinted at, into a comforting foam of the kind of total ignorance it pretends to criticize.

Characteristic of the first half are specifics – literacy, life expectancy, etc. Characteristic of the second half are generalisations, without reference to ANY specifics at all to back them up – “we didn’t scare so easily”, “We put our money where our mouth was”. What does this mean?!? Whoever wrote this script can refute the contention that America is the greatest country in the world, and back it up with facts. When he moves on to saying that America used to be the best country in the world, however, the writer has to rely on a load of empty talking.

The Bright Side

In one way there’s a dialectical truth in all this. American capitalism passed through a stage that was in a huge number of ways profoundly progressive in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Full employment, a boom, a dramatic rise in living standards. Americans today are living in the hollowed-out shell of the engine that once carried out these great achievements. We have to assume this is the past golden age the actor is talking about.

Nostalgia for this progressive period explains why the John F Kennedy assassination is remembered with such passion by so many – it’s implicitly identified as the moment when everything “went bad”. Of course this is rarely backed up by any actual argument or data. Kennedy was as cynical and murderous as the next US president you might pick out of a hat – look at Cuba, look at Vietnam. The event is just taken over as an effective symbol.

The Dark Side

The character portrayed is of course not black, gay (as far as we can tell) or a woman. Nor is he from Latin America or South-East Asia. This means his view on this socially repressive and rampantly imperialist age is skewed.

This is the dark side of sentimentality for the post-war “golden age” – it’s a straight white man’s golden age. Good points about how there used to be a welfare state, workers’ rights, a sense of community and greater democratic accountability, start to shade into an otherwise inexplicable nostalgia for a period of rampant racism and sexism.

Two ways to respond to change

There’s a reason this kind of nonsense sentimentality strikes a chord with people. Reality is constant change, and capitalism brings about constant, revolutionising change to the world. There are two ways to respond to the change capitalism imposes on humanity.

1) a sad, tragic, depressing response of trying to salvage or reinstate the positive things that capitalism has destroyed, usually defined by a selective and sentimental remembering of the past. Running after anachronisms and past  fleeting moments is a journey through fog that might lead you anywhere except where you want to go. One in this position we might call an anachrophile – a lover of obselete things.

2) a positive and uplifting response of identifying the incredible foundations that capitalism has laid and planning to build on them. This is the basis of scientific socialism or Marxism. The massive advances in technology and social organisation which capitalism has brought about in the last two hundred years or so have massively improved the condition of humanity.

Capitalism is a vessel we have to shrug off now as it’s fulfilled its progressive role and is increasingly a burden, not an aid – strangling democracy, the economy and the environment just to sustain the wealth of an insignificant minority of the population. Those who want to turn back the clock to an earlier phase of capitalism are fooling themselves.

To give one example to illustrate this point:

The Corporation drives the small farmers off the land and turns them into propertyless wage-labourers. What is the solution to this injustice?

1) The anachrophile might say that the small farmers should wish the Corporation never existed, so they could return to being small farmers.

2) The Marxist will recognise that the Corporation has superior technical equipment and capital that can reduce the amount of time people have to spend in work and drudgery – so he says that the wage-labourers need to strive for the future, not the past. They need to take over the Corporation and run it democratically, using its capital and resources to provide a better life for all concerned.

Nature of Television

The mass media are very good at sending out vague or mixed messages. In this way they can give viewers of many political persuasions the illusion that they are hearing something that supports their particular views. So where this clip first provokes and cuts deep, it must then soothe, unite, fudge together and promise hugs for everyone. The refreshing denial that America is the greatest country in the world must be balanced by an outpouring of sludge about a fictional golden age.


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