Greatness is Overrated (or maybe we’re just using the wrong definition of greatness)

One of my all-time favorite TV Shows was The West Wing. Written and created by Aaron Sorkin, the West Wing offered an idealistic vision of politics and public service. You didn’t have to be a liberal to appreciate Jed Bartlett, Toby, Josh and Sam. The writing of Sorkin during the first three years of the West Wing was brilliant, chippy, funny and sometimes inspiring. People like Aaron Sorkin remind me of the power of good writing, and how it can be used to elevate our discussion and raise our consciousness.

Jed Bartlet, where are you?

A few weeks ago, HBO premiered a new show by Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy. Daniels character is what drives the Newsroom. Cynical and little jaded by the constant drive for ratings, McAvoy, desperately wants to be popular and yet feels a discomfort about how much he’s strayed from reporting real news and informing the public.

In the opening minutes of the premier episode, Sorkin delivers the kind of scene which has became his staple. McAvoy is on a college panel with liberal and conservative commentators. They are asked, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world.” Both of the other panelists give predictable, familiar and hackneyed answers. Bored, indifferent and barely there, McAvoy offers a trite response. Pressed to give a real answer, McAvoy pushes back, “America is not the greatest country” He then goes through all of the reasons why America has fallen short. It’s a powerful scene in part because it is boldly honest. It doesn’t have a liberal or conservative agenda. In McAvoy’s commentary is an honesty and humility we rarely see from our public figures.

Jeff Daniels scene is reminiscent of Peter Finch’s famous rant in Network, when he tells his audience to get angry. Like the scene in Network,  MacAvoy’s speech is a call to action and encouragement to us to look at ourselves clearly, to acknowledge the ways we can do better and to move forward.

Some people will no doubt be uncomfortable with the candor of this scene. It’s painfully honest and introspective. I think candor makes all of us uncomfortable, in part because it pulls away the curtain. Candor at it’s best, asks difficult questions. It’s humble and not pretentious.

In a column on Breitbart, columnist Tony Lee, challenges Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin for the tone and content of this scene in the Newsroom.

(MacAvoy’s) words and premise are demonstrably false and only believed by those who do not think America is exceptional and is no different or better than Brazil, Turkey, Canada, China, Spain, Kenya, or Azerbaijan. 

Today is the Fourth Of July.  This is one of those times, when we like to share why we are great. For myself, the question I find myself asking is “Why is it so important to us that we live in the greatest country in the world?” Clearly I don’t understand the stakes here.  In my opinion greatness is overrated. Overall, as a person of faith and follower of Jesus, I don’t really have a dog in this fight of whether America is great or not. I served my country honorably in the United States Air Force and still I don’t get it. Personally, I’m not really interested in living in a great country, instead I would much rather live in a good one.

So, I ask the question again. . .

Why is it important that we live in the greatest country in the world?

Suppose for a moment that an algorithm was developed which produced a definitive rank for the greatness of nations, we’ll call it the “greatness scale.” If using our greatness scale we determined America was in fact the 4th, 12th or 49th rated country, what would the practical effect be?. Would Americans flee across the border to Canada? Do 300 million people live in the United States because this is the greatest nation in the world? If you were a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees won the next ten world series, would you suddenly switch your allegiance, because your team was no longer the greatest?

As an Angels fan, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry make me say, “Meh”

For most of the world, this question of “greatness” is absurd. Does someone living in Greece or Spain entertain the notion that he/she lives in the “Greatest Nation in the World.” Why do people even live in Spain or Greece?  Do they remain in their respective countries, because of an inability to emigrate to someplace like the United States? Maybe the reason, they remain loyal Spaniards or Greeks, is even more simple. They love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their home. For reasons of family, culture, community and history, it is their home.

Why is it so important that we are the greatest?

In the Gospels, the disciples following Jesus argued about this very same question.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9: 33-37)

The disciples argue about who among them was the greatest, and Jesus turns the question on its head, telling his followers, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  In other words, greatness has nothing to do with charisma, physical strength, education or talent, it has to do with humility and servanthood.

As someone living in America, I may not necessarily be invested in a discussion of our national greatness, and yet I am very aware of the very real blessings I have received as a part of our country. Rather than see this as something to beat my chest about, I think this should cause me to reflect on the responsibility I’ve been given to serve others.

In this post I’ve questioned the usefulness of asking questions about our national greatness, and yet I believe questions about “greatness” are useful insofar as they force us to define our terms. What makes a nation great? What makes a person great? How can we become truly great?

Have a Happy and Peaceful Fourth of July

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4 thoughts on “Greatness is Overrated (or maybe we’re just using the wrong definition of greatness)

  1. What a great piece. The West Wing is my favorite TV show of all time and I need to check out The Newsroom. But yes, what shows greatness more than the humility and desire to serve others? Jesus was the perfect example of that.

    • Thanks Ken.

      If you like the West Wing, Newsroom is definitely must see. Hope you had a great 4th.

  2. Oh wow, what a clip! Provocative, to say the least. Thanks for sharing it & your thoughts, Darren. I miss interesting moments like these b/c I don’t have a TV (by choice), so can’t comment on The West Wing or The Newsroom. I have, however, traveled to and lived in a wide variety of countries in the world and have noted that while there are copious amounts of citizens of other nations that are intrigued about how “America” works & what life is like here, the majority isn’t clamoring to trade passports. You’re right in pinpointing that they love their home, their culture, their communities, their own lives. While traveling, I have experienced unparalleled generosity, hospitality, and kindness from strangers–but have found that it’s almost easier to experience those qualities in an unfamiliar surrounding where I’m not in my usual run-from-here-to-there-and-get-things-done-day-to-day routine. After coming home from a trip filled with adventures and Jesus-like love poured out from others, my eyes are opened to those things right here at home. It’s in those moments that I genuinely see and appreciate the gentleman helping me pick up something I’ve dropped, the stranger who looks like she could use a conversation on the T. And I’m a little more open to taking Jesus up on a nudging to do something I wouldn’t consider otherwise. I think all of those moments are actually universal–because Jesus is. Like you, the blessings that I receive living here are abundant, and I am deeply grateful for the USA. Living abroad, those blessings might look slightly different, but they are no less great.

    • Hey Alexis:

      Wonderful comments!

      I think you illustrate, quite personally (which I love), how the whole “greatness” discussion can distract us from an appreciation for those beautiful people, beautiful cultures and Jesus-like love we might experience in all of those places. Moreover, we can be more sensitive to the diverse circumstances and people around us even here in the States. What really nudges me is this. . .

      Along the way, might this make us more ready and able to hear what Jesus is telling us? It’s a question very much worth considering.

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