“Greatest Nation” Rhetoric Roars Back

My greatness as a writer is simply a fact.

You don’t agree? Well, then obviously you are churlish or malevolent.

If I were serious about such a claim of superiority, now would be the time to stop reading — on the reasonable assumption that I’m a dull-witted bore with no capacity for critical self-reflection. What applies to individual declarations is also true of nations, yet in the United States such statements about our greatness are common.

Rich Lowry of the National Review closed out 2010 with a particularly bombastic piece reasserting U.S. greatness. Though Lowry is a conservative, his argument is conventional: The United States has brought prosperity to the world, protecting all that is decent against evil. Yes, we’ve had to muscle others out of the way on occasion, but that was necessary to bring order and liberty. Yes, we’ve made some mistakes along the way, but those are all safely in the past and, besides, they have to understood in context.

His conclusion: “Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.” (“Yes, the Greatest Country Ever”.)

This expression of American exceptionalism is unexceptional in U.S. political history, but it roared back stronger than ever in 2010, especially in the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. As it becomes harder to ignore the United States’ decline as an economic power — which will limit the capacity for imperial marauding around the world — the inclination of most mainstream politicians to assert our greatness will intensify.

Those of us with radical or progressive politics need to challenge these kinds of slogans when we talk with friends, family, and co-workers. In my 2004 book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, I offered common-sense responses in plain language, and as we get ready for a more right-wing Congress and the political discussions that lie ahead, I thought it would be helpful to revisit some of those points.

With the permission of publisher City Lights Books, I have posted online two chapters from that book — one that deconstructs “the greatest nation” rhetoric  and another that challenges the concept of patriotism.

It is neither churlish nor malevolent to want to honestly assess the accomplishments and failures of one’s country. Rather, it is the obligation of every citizen.

Robert Jensen is Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with the The Land Institute in Salina, KS. He is the author of several books, including The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021) and The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017). He also hosts Podcast from the Prairie with Wes Jackson and is an associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson. Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go here. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

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  1. bozh said on January 3rd, 2011 at 11:40am #

    His conclusion: “Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.” (“Yes, the Greatest Country Ever”.)

    the actual meaning of such an utterance was in Lowry. but we will not ever find out what he meant or any other usans who says the same idea.

    structurally, the statements falls in concluding-wishing category; to which true-false or either-or answers do not apply.
    this solves for me lots of nutty-knotty problems; resulting in keeping my face less distorted that it’d be otherwise. so, that’s a +.

    so, readers, on guard!

    it does not mean that i cannot infer what the above quote means. it means that u.s. masters of people and of wars are great.

    u cannot see united states; thus, u cannot make any conclusion about what u cannot taste, touch, see, hear, smell.
    u can tho smell etc., people and u get to decide what to say about that– nobody else.
    i call this mode of thinking “pristine”. ok, some wld call it “primitive”.
    and i have a hunch [primitive or otherwise?] that that label wld even be better.
    please, no heart eating over any of this. for my heart might ache also!
    no, no, i am teasing u: i do not give a hoot about ur heart; take care of it urself for a change! tnx

  2. hayate said on January 4th, 2011 at 5:24pm #

    Well, after zionist Jews, [white, economically privileged] americans are the next most superior being on the planet and deserve the special pedistalic status the world accords them.

    (ducks and runs…)