If you would like a graphic (literal and figurative) demonstration of our nation’s greatest failing, sit in front of your television set and watch NBC cover an international sports event, the Winter Olympics, as if only Americans were participating. Every time the Today show’s Meredith Vieira stumbles over the name of the Russian figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko (it’s pronounced exactly as it’s spelled, Meredith, with the accent on the second syllables) and giggles to show that it’s OK to be ignorant, I think about all of the announcers from Canada and Europe who pronounce everyone’s name correctly. Their employers care about getting it right, and NBC doesn’t. Not if the athlete isn’t one of us, contributing to the mounting total of “American” medals announced breathlessly every day. Why, anyone would think that these medals were more important than the performance of American students on international comparison tests of achievement in school. In case you’re interested, Finland was No. 1 and Canada No. 2 in the most recent international assessment of reading comprehension. The United States was No. 15. U.S.A., U.S.A….
This Olympic coverage matters because it offers a window into a deeply provincial, reflexively nationalistic mindset that hampers our understanding of the rest of the world and prevents any realistic assessment of American weaknesses and strengths in comparison to other countries. In a truly emblematic moment in the “We’re No. 1″ extravaganza, NBC showed a recap of the medals ceremony for the Men’s Super-G, an Alpine skiing event. Americans Bode Miller and Andrew Weibrecht won silver and bronze, respectively, but the network simply blanked out the gold medal podium, which was occupied by Norwegian Aksel Svindal. Well, who cares about a Norwegian? He’s just an athlete from one of those unhappy countries cursed by secularism and universal health care.
The conviction that the United States is morally and culturally better than other
countries–including other developed democracies–is a real social disease that hurts us more than it does anyone else. It is also a profoundly anti-intellectual. This cultural narcissim is what impelled Brit Hume to urge Tiger Woods to convert to Christianity because Buddhism (in Hume’s view) is an inferior religion that does not offer enough opportunity for forgiveness and repentance. Ours is the most religiously diverse nation on earth–our secular Constitution guarantees that–but Buddhism isn’t quite good enough, not quite American enough, for people still living mentally in the days when nearly every American (except, of course, for the people who were here when the first pilgrims landed) was a Christian.
One of my favorite examples of this arrogant provincialism appears in Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2005 dissent in one of the Ten Commandments cases. The Supreme Court majority ruled that displays of the commandments be removed from all courthouses in McCreary County, KY, and Scalia disagreed. [McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky.]
He opened his argument with a slap at secular Europe–though only the gods know what that has do with biblical displays in American courts. “On September 11, 2001,” Scalia wrote, “I was attending in Rome, Italy, an international conference of judges and lawyers, principally from Europe and the United States. That night and the next morning, virtually all of the participants watched, in their hotel rooms, the address to the Nation by the President of the United States concerning the murderous attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, in which thousands of Americans had been killed….” (I particularly like that capitalization of Nation.) Scalia noted that Bush’s address concluded with what he termed a prayer–“God Bless America.” In the same weird judicial opinion, Scalia went on to claim, “I was approached by one of the judges from a European country, who…sadly observed, “How I wish the Head of State of my country, at a similar time of national tragedy and distress, could conclude his address, `God bless_____.” I presume Salia knows that this so-called prayer was the title of a song written by Irving Berlin. Whether this incident actually happened or whether Scalia just made it up to serve his rhetorical purposes, the point is clear: our government is more godly than European governments and Europeans envy us our endless obligatory displays of public piety.
A twin of this delusion about superior American morality is the conviction that we have nothing to learn from the way any other country does things. The dire warnings that “Obamacare” was going to turn the U.S. into Europe or Canada–as if the inferiority of European and Canadian medical care were self-evident–has been very much a part of the non-debate over health care this year. And here is why the NBC coverage means more than the jingoistic flag-waving that always surrounds international sporting competitions. This has been a lost opportunity for a little bit of education that could have been sandwiched in between the medal counts. Since the Olympics are being held in Canada, would this not have been a perfect opportunity to do a feature on the Canadian health care system to go along with the endless time-filling blurbs on what the American athletes are listening to on their iPods? There were certainly ample news pegs, since injured athletes were being carried off the slopes to Vancouver hospitals every day.
Moreover, the first Canadian ever to win an Olympic gold medal on his home soil, Alexandre Bilodeau, has a medical and human backstory that would have been made for TV–had he been an American. Bilodeau, a French-Canadian from Montreal, won the Men’s Moguls. He has an older brother, Frederic, with cerebral palsy, and Alexandre — in addition to being a champion skier — is a strong advocate for the rights of the disabled. NBC, to give it its due, did use a clip of this story form the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (which at least prevented Meredith from mangling the name “Bilodeau”), but that was all. It might have been interesting to hear what the frightening Candian health care system does for the disabled, since if the Bilodeau family lived in the United States, they would have been ineligible for most health insurance plans because their son has a pre-existing condition.
Another story you’re not likely to hear on NBC is that Canadian students outperform Americans on every international test. In the same report that ranked American students No. 15 in reading comprehension, released in December by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. was down at No. 14 in science and No. 19 in math.
Pay attention to what you are hearing and seeing from Vancouver, even if you are not captivated by ski jumping, snowboarding and figure skating (which, alas, I am). American television has unwittingly, by omission more than commission, presented a portrait of a nation clinging to the stories it tells itself about the superiority of American morality, culture, and education. These illusions have played a crucial role in placing us way down in the standings that really count if we are to function effectively in a world in which neither the self-congratulatory “God bless America” mantra nor a gold medal on a slippery slope are measures of national excellence. And it’s impossible to Photoshop away the test scores of students in other countries who are beating us where it matters most. Oh, how I wish that every teacher could say “God Bless America” when his C students are outperformed once again by those non-Christian Asians and those secularly corrupt Europeans.