There's a scene in the HBO series The Newsroom in which the main character, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is asked why America is the greatest country in the world. His answer shocks the auditorium. "There's absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world," he says. "We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 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 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies."
Like McAvoy, I too cringe when I hear someone qualify the United States as the greatest country on the planet. It's such a vague statement. Greatest at what? Certainly not healthcare or education, and most definitely not at providing its citizens with work-life balance — the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave benefits for new mothers. (As a mom of two young children, this is an affront I take very personally.) And while I can't deny that this country has provided my family with invaluable opportunities since we arrived as penniless Cuban refugees in the early '90s, I also think that calling it "the greatest" thwarts its potential. It's an incredibly ethnocentric position that does not allow room for growth.
Still, I've recently spent some time with a couple of Spaniards who are vacationing in the United States and have realized — through their eyes — that America has some pretty incredible things I often take for granted.
For example, whenever we go out to eat at a restaurant, they are shocked at the number of times their drinks get refilled for free. They love that you can pretty much buy anything at any store and return it later, as long as you've kept the receipt, no questions asked. They think it's amazing that I can go away for the weekend, leave my porch furniture outside and unlocked and find it undisturbed when I come home. They cannot believe our light-rail pretty much works on the honor system — yes, there are officers who sporadically check to make sure you paid, but no ticket is required to board the trains.
In my travels abroad, I've also experienced a level of nostalgia for some of the great things America has to offer. Even the weakest water pressure in the United States feels like a waterfall when compared to some of the showers I've taken in Latin America. And don't get me started on the hot water. Just once, I'd like for the hot water to last the duration of my shower when I'm in Venezuela, visiting my husband's family, so that I don't have to end up shivering in a corner, rinsing off the soap limb by limb because the water went from pleasant to arctic in the five minutes it took me to lather up.
I know that I am speaking from a place of privilege, that not everyone in America has unlimited access to hot water or lives in a neighborhood where things don't get stolen off your porch, but the average middle-class family in this country enjoys a level of personal comfort that supersedes the rest of the world's. And I think that's what makes so many Americans think this country is "the greatest." This excessive comfort serves as a smoke screen for other serious issues in which America is getting left in the dust. Issues like our lack of maternity leave, for example. (No, I can't let that go.)
In that same scene from The Newsroom, another character holds up two signs for McAvoy right after the question is asked about America being the greatest. The first sign reads, "It's not." And the second sign says "But it can be."
There's another thing I've noticed that makes America different: its people. Although I have found wonderful, kind, hardworking people all over the world, the level of courteousness and respect I receive from the moment I step off the plane in the United States is unparalleled. My Spanish friends have noticed it too — from waiters to cashiers to employees of the YMCA, they are amazed at everyone's genuine willingness to be of service and lend a helping land.
So, while we Americans are a bit spoiled by our excessive comforts, I believe we still have what it takes to make this country the greatest on the planet. And I propose we start with maternity leave. I'd be willing to trade all the free refills in the world if new working moms could have the freedom to stay home with their newborns for those first couple of months.