I’m often amazed and somewhat troubled by the number of people who claim loudly and proudly that the United States of America is the best country in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dismiss their claim immediately… I just have a hard time believing this trope from someone who has not stepped outside of the country. Or, if they have stepped outside of the country, their trip only consisted of going to one of the many American enclaves around the world in the form of exclusive clubs and tourist attractions.
Some people compare this statement about the United States as a husband saying that he’s married the best woman in the world, or a father saying that their son is the best son in the world. It’s just something people say when they are attached to something or someone, not necessarily because they’ve done a comprehensive survey of countries (or people) around the world and objectively decided that their country is the best. I agree, kind of.
What irks me is that too many people make this statement about the United States being the best country in the world while in a conversation that is belittling people from other countries. We recently saw it in the racists attacks from our president on four congresswomen where the president suggested the congresswomen — American citizens and three of them born in the United States — go back to their countries if they don’t like the United States. (Yes, this is a racist attack. It’s what racists and xenophobes tell people who are not White when they want to belittle and scare them.)
In order for you to say that the United States is the best country in the world, and for me to believe you, you need to have done one of several things. One, you have gone to another country and actually had a conversation with people in that country. As I wrote above, it doesn’t count if you go to a club or stay within the safe confines of the tourist area. Two, you have broken bread and listened to the entire life stories of people from other countries. It doesn’t count if you bought a book at your favorite, suburban book store and read someone’s autobiography and then cried about it with your book club. Or, three, you are from another country and have come to The Land of Opportunity for, you know, an opportunity.
Other than that, before you start claiming loudly and proudly that you live in the best country in the world, you should probably go to other countries. When I was in Seoul, Korea, I felt completely safe, even in the darkest alleys. The city had the curse and blessing of being destroyed in the Korean War and being rebuilt to be a modern metropolis. I walked around with a very expensive camera, and no one bothered me at all.
This wasn’t the case when I went to Barranquilla, Colombia. Although I knew that it has crime like other places in the world, the people there are so tired of crime that they actually go out of their way to remind you that there is crime. Taxicab drivers told me to hide my iPhone (a cheap iPhone 5 in the era of the iPhone 7). The local police had TV spots reminding people not to “give out papaya,” a way of saying not to flash your valuables to people who would take them.
In Puerto Rico — a US territory — the concerns were not about safety. I felt very safe. The concerns there were the infrastructure and poor services. For an American territory, it was sad to see the level of poverty and abandonment that so many places around the island were suffering. As much as I tried to wrap my head around what kind of “exceptional” nation abandons a paradisal corner of its empire like that, I couldn’t figure it out. It couldn’t possibly be because Puerto Ricans are Brown and speak Spanish, could it?
Of course, the rest of my experience outside of the United States is in Mexico as I was growing up and a short trip to Canada and The Bahamas. There was also a quick trip to Roatán Island in the Caribbean. But these last two places, Nassau and Roatán, fulfill the definition of tourist enclaves that are not exactly the full picture of what a foreign country really is.
From what I hear from friends and colleagues who have taken the time to travel abroad and get to know the people of different countries and cultures, there are places around the world where you could live and not miss the United States at all. And they were not talking only about Europe and/or “developed” nations, either. They were talking about some places you would not think would be anywhere near or better than the United States.
At the end of the day, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, to be honest. What Americans see as desirable and idyllic depends on their income and place in society. If you’re rich and part of the majority in any given locality, things are probably better than if you’re poor and part of the oppressed. The United States is a pretty good place to live, in my opinion. But I am aware of all the shortcomings of this nation, its people and its system of government. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what gets me up in the morning to go make this place, and the world as a whole, a better place to live.
Your mileage, however, may vary.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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