In the first episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, anchorman Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) delivers a rant that begins: “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, No. 4 in labor force and No. 4 in exports.” Writer Aaron Sorkin was accused of everything but jihad for having his character express such negative thoughts about America, and the program was heartily loathed during its run by real Americans. Now, three years later, a new academic study confirms what Will had to say. And more.
Now, Will’s rant was presented as an ad-libbed monologue by a pissed-off anchorman. It was not sourced, nor was it precise in its definitions. “Literacy” by what definition, for example, as tested by whom, how? These conversational imprecisions gave “fact-checkers” all kinds of room to brand one assertion or another as inaccurate (in each case that I have seen, the result of the proposed correction was not to make America great again, but to make it not-quite-that-bad.) They also make direct comparison with an academic study difficult if you want to avoid comparing apples to oranges.
That’s not what we’re doing. It has been claimed that the fruit is spoiling. We’re trying to see how rotten it is.
Now come Dr. Hershey Friedman of the City University of New York and Dr. Sarah Hertz of the State University of New York with a study whose first sentence gives away its conclusion and echoes Will McAvoy: “Americans must stop convincing themselves that nothing is wrong and that the United States is still number one in the world.”
- Will said we were “17th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science.” Friedman/Hertz say we are “17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math.”
- Will said we were “49th in life expectancy.” According to Friedman/Hertz, we’re 42nd, with a life expectancy of 79.5 years, ten fewer than first-place Monaco.
- Will said we were third in median household income. (What? We’re not the richest country in the world?) Friedman/Hertz use a similar measure, median adult wealth, and finds we rank 27th in the world, behind Cyprus (25), Spain (20) and Ireland (18). Number One? Australia.
- Will said we were 178th in infant mortality; today, the CIA ranks us at 169th. Friedman/Hertz look instead at maternal deaths in childbirth, for which we rank 60 of 180 countries. Our maternal mortality has been increasing since 1990, and is more than twice Canada’s rate.
- Friedman/Hertz identify many more categories than did Will McAvoy. For example, 25 countries have lower rates of people in poverty, 35 have proportionately fewer children in poverty. And when it comes to income inequality, the United States is the fourth worst country in the world.
- Will and Friedman/Hertz agree that there are still two areas in which the United States in undisputed number one: it imprisons more of its citizens and spends more on its military than anybody. US prisons hold 2.2 million prisoners of a population of 320 million. China, with nearly five times the population (1.4 billion) imprisons only 1.6 million people. The US spends more on its military than the next eight countries on the list combined.
There’s a word we need to bring back into general usage: jingoism, meaning “extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy.” The pundits and pols who were offended by the fictitious Will McAvoy, who will be outraged by the conclusions of Friedman/Hertz, who will declare unpatriotic anyone who dares to repeat their heresy — they are so many jingo bells, making rhythmic noises to avoid thinking about the bleak realities of a country in decline.
When a child dons a cape and claims to be a superhero, it’s cute. When an adult does it and offers to demonstrate his superpowers by jumping out a window, he must be restrained and treated. The people who want to restore our country’s damaged spirit — the true patriots, in other words, know that if it can be done it will not be by superpowers, but by even rarer stuff: dogged persistence, sacrifice and hard, hard work.
Wouldn’t that be great?