• Greatness Is as Greatness Does

    by  • June 28, 2012 • Politics • 2 Comments

    Yesterday, I came across this lovely video clip of Aaron Sorkin’s recently premiered show, News Room (thanks, Matt Perkins). The clip features Jeff Daniel’s character unloading most eloquently on the topic of why America is no longer the Greatest period Country period on Earth period.

    I saw the clip outside the context of the show, but it resonated with my own mixed feelings about the manifest greatness of my home country and my profound distaste for Nationalism in almost any form outside of the middle of the 19th century. I shared the clip because of the point it was making rather than because of any of the data it used to make that point (though Jeff Daniel’s delivery was certainly sparkly!).

    He does look a little like Keith Olbermann — just a little

    What emerged from sharing was a question of the requirement for factual accuracy in political fiction. To be clear, I don’t think it is required, strictly speaking: Jeff Daniel’s character’s use of inaccurate data may be an important plot point. It might tell us his character is hyperbolic, or misinformed, or reckless, or deceitful, or simply fallible – in the context of the story. But, to be fair, I didn’t reference the clip in the context of the story – I used it as an illustration of my political frustrations. And in that arena, factual accuracy is of cardinal importance.

    Towards the end of accuracy, here are the assertions Jeff Daniel’s character makes in this scene, along with an assessment of the truth value of each. My list is derived from the helpful transcription by Michael Offutt.

    With no further ado:

    1. The United States ranks 7th in literacy worldwide.

    This number is actually understated as far as I can determine. The 2009 PISA puts us at 14th place in terms of performance amongst participating countries, but other metrics (most of which seem to be based on the World Factbook’s dataset) put us in lower positions (see here and here as examples).

    The other issue with this number is that it is based on elective self-evaluation, and that not every country participates — which makes comparison with the world as a whole rather difficult. However, these seem to be the best numbers available — keep that in mind for the next two items.

    2. The United States ranks 27th in math worldwide.

    Close but not quite: 25th in mathematics in the 2009 PISA evaluation.

    3. 22nd in science.

    Even more not quite: 17th in science in the 2009 PISA evaluation.

    4. 49th in life expectancy

    Mixed results, but I think this one may be worth of a pass: Wikipedia’s list came up with #38, but the World Factbook reported us at #50.

    5. 178th in infant mortality

    This number is just flat out WRONG. Read some informed critique here and some less informed critique here.

    Whatever the reasons for the incorrect data in the script — perhaps a typo, perhaps an intentional flaw, perhaps intervention by divine or alien forces? — the correct number should almost certainly be somewhere in the 30s. Several sources I saw challenged the numbers reported by other countries as being “filtered” — I cannot evaluate that in the scope of this humble blog, obviously. However, it seems safe to generalize two things:

    a) America is definitely not #1
    b) America’s infant mortality rate isn’t terrible; it may be as much as twice as high as the rates found in comparable Northwest European countries, but it is certainly dramatically better than that preponderance of territory commonly referred to as the “Third” world.

    6. 3rd in median household income

    This is a bit sticky. The 2010 figures show us beating out Norway for the #2 spot by $100/household, a fraction. But wealth distribution is a mysterious thing: I haven’t heard of any really concise way of comparing distribution curves per country. The United States is unbelievably wealthy compared to other countries, but that’s partly because of the sheer size of its economy. In terms of GDP per capita, which I think is a more relevant number in many ways, we currently weigh in at #6.

    7. 4th in labor force

    Spot on. But not a particularly material metric to begin with.

    8. 4th in exports

    Not quite. In 2010, we were in the third spot; in 2011, second. I hope you’ll pardon me for the blackberries-to-marionberries comparison on this metric; I don’t consider it particularly material.

    9. 1st in incarcerated citizens per capita

    Unabashedly true. Congratulations, us!

    10. 1st in adults who believe in angels

    I was unable to find any comprehensive international comparisons for this figure. However, I did stumble across this article showing that, in a study by Baylor University, 55% of American respondents answered yes to the statement “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.”

    I had no idea guardian angels were such busy creatures.

    11. 1st in defense spending, spending more than the next 26 countries combined; 25 of those other countries are US allies.

    Another “close but no cigar” item. According to Wikipedia’s listing (derived from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s evaluation in 2011), the United States defense budget is only as large as the next 19 countries combined. Of those 19 countries, I am unable to confirm the ally status of several: China, of course, but also Brazil. Do we have an alliance with them???


    Have you been keeping track? Here are the results:

    Number of items that were outrageously misstated: 1
    Number of items that were exaggerated: 5
    Number of items that were correct (or within a reasonable range): 4
    Number of items that couldn’t be resolved (i.e., the whole angel issue): 1


    This scene, as dramatically sound and well acted as it may be, is factually unsound. If it were a boat, it would sink. If it were a house, it would collapse in 45 mile-per-hour winds. If it were a truck, it would probably be rotting in my five-acre backyard, right next to the old swing set. However, it is not any of these things: it is film. And as we all now, celluloid obeys none of the rules of the so called “real world.”

    Of the eleven items, one is materially broken (infant mortality), and one is impossible to evaluate (angels), and several are misleading — violating the dictates of hard fact in favor of dramatic punch. Nevertheless, the point of the scene endures. There are very few metrics beyond military strength that would clearly underline the United States as the “greatest country on earth.” It is questionable whether the title possesses any merit of its own.

    So this entire exercise in fact finding and comparison leads only to another question: by what criteria DO we evaluate ourselves, and how do we measure up?

    2 Responses to Greatness Is as Greatness Does

    1. Matthew
      June 28, 2012 at 10:57 pm

      Ha! I read your list and thought, before reading your conclusion, for TV, they did pretty damn well. Only one out right wrong and the rest one were closeish.

      I will follow it up with what I said before. You can’t expect TV to be factually honest. Our actual media isn’t, why would a show portraying the media be anymore so?

      That’s really not the point though. Don’t lose the forest for the trees here. The point is this, we aren’t the greatest country in the world. We aren’t even in the top ten, by MANY different standards. We are a country living on lies, believing them because it’s harder not to believe them. That’s what point of that rant of his was. We aren’t what you claim, so quit claiming, or we’re never going to get there.

    2. Cathy McDonald
      June 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

      Wow, Kevin, I sure like the way you use words. You should, like, be a writer. Of analysis.

      Being someone more interested in visual rhetoric and film studies, I admit that my attention was first caught by the directing. The choice to have the music come in at the transition point between diatribe and sentiment was the biggest disappointment (music is always the director saying “Feel something here”), but I was also bummed at the empty aphorisms strung together at the end.

      These items disappointed me because I love the notion that someone would carry on like that at an academic assembly. We all love the maverick narrative. But above all, for someone to say that the United States (not “America” please–Canada and Mexico and in the Americas–the use of “America” for the US is itself a huge marker for ethnocentricism–for someone to question the unexamined claim that the US is the greatest is thrilling.

      Self-reflection is needed politically, economically, and culturally big time about now. Too bad that the Sorkin scene ended up not really doing that, btw. The tearful switch from critique to tearful longing for the good old days reinscribes the narrative that we are/used to be/deserve to be evaluated as best. A stronger message would have left out the violins and empty assertions at the end. Oh, and the eager-faced undergraduate chick who went from hopeful to dashed. That was the director again, choosing acting gestures. (I work with college students, and they don’t usually look like that–honest.)

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