Image: Home in New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina / Infrogmation / Wikimedia Commons
America was never “great.”
Sorry, Donald Trump and whoever might support you and your misguided promise to “make America great again,” but I’m not sorry.
It’s the truth.
Since its inception – and even before – America has stood for discriminatory “exceptionalism” that has bred a false belief in worldwide moral superiority.
When Americans go around and lecture the rest of the world about such things as democracy, equality and tolerance, they seem to forget about the shortcomings of their own country. It’s incredibly hypocritical.
The reality is this: the United States spends more money on its military per year than almost every other nation on earth combined, has troops in more than 150 countries (out of 193 member states of the United Nations), and kills far more people per year than the likes of ISIS or Al Qaeda – horrific as they are – ever have.
That is nothing to be proud of – and most definitely not “great.”
Ronald Reagan is often hailed as a hero by Trump and other conservatives. Apparently, they forget that under Reagan, the United States gave millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and other support to a man named Osama bin Laden (because he was fighting the Soviet Union), another man named Saddam Hussein (because he was fighting Iran, another enemy of the United States), and supported terrorist organisations around the world because they were fighting leftist governments.
Oh, and Reagan also ordered the invasion of the island nation of Grenada (population: about 110,000, compared to more than 300 million in the US) because it was led by a communist government.
That is anything but “great.”
A few decades later, the United States is a deeply unequal society. The wealth gap is among the largest in the developed world, and women make on average 82 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Is that “great?” No.
Then there are the problems with discrimination against African-Americans and other racial minorities, the denial of basic human rights to undocumented migrants, distrust and outright hostility towards Muslims, systematic oppression of LGBTQ+ individuals, and discrimination against women such as limiting women’s abilities to get an abortion and make their own decisions about their own bodies.
And we all know about the easy availability of guns and the countless victims claimed by gun violence every year.
Those things are a far cry from “great.”
These are not new problems, either. Those that study history might know that America gained independence from Great Britain after a bloody, years-long civil war that killed thousands, wounded thousands more, and made even more homeless. The country was also essentially built upon two things: slavery and genocide.
Even more sobering, it has been suggested that more Native Americans (tens of millions according to most historians) died as a result of European colonisation – whether from disease, war, forced relocation, genocide, ethnic cleansing or other causes – than the total number of people who died during the Holocaust.
Some Americans call that period of expansion “Manifest Destiny.” Many Native American languages do not have a word to describe the scale of the horror.
That is the complete opposite of “great.”
That’s not all, either. It wasn’t until 1863 – more than 250 years after the first colonists arrived in America – that slavery was outlawed, and it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that African-Americans even had the right to vote. Oh, and it wasn’t until 1920 – more than 300 years since colonists arrived – that women, one-half of the entire population, were even theoretically allowed to take part in elections.
The fact is, America is pretty great if you’re a cisgender, Christian white man who has lots of money, and were born in the US to a family that also has lots of cisgender, Christian white men.
If not, then life can be pretty tough to even be given equal opportunities and recognition for your achievements.
That is not “great.”
This isn’t to say America is the worst country in the world. Places like Russia are far worse, what with even basic rights denied to almost everyone except cisgender white men.
Those places also are not “great.”
Aotearoa isn’t perfect, either (see: the Land Wars, continued discrimination of Maori and Pasifika, child poverty, and more), just like any country. But compared to America’s history and continued sermonising abroad, it’s practically paradise.
I should mention that I was born in the United States. Growing up, I thought it was the greatest country on earth, and that everyone would naturally be jealous of what people in the US had. That’s what I was told, anyway.
Then I travelled abroad, and I haven’t moved back since. That was six years ago.
What have my travels taught me? That every country has their own unique things that make them special. No one country is “better” than another, because it’s all countries, everywhere, working together that makes the world a place we can live in.
America, or any country, can be great simply by doing this: by being an inclusive nation that looks after the rights of everyone, treats everyone equally, and is willing to reach out and help other nations in a non-violent way. Admitting one’s own shortcomings, dropping one’s arrogance, and accepting the fact all countries are equal to each other – in other words, humility – are also good steps.
That is how America can become “great.”
Unfortunately, I get the feeling Donald Trump and I have different definitions of what the word “great” means.