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Number One?

There's one thing about which all the people running for president agree:

The United States is the greatest nation on earth.

After he'd won the Republican primary in New Hampshire, Senator John McCain went so far as to say that the U.S. is the greatest country in the history of the world, at which point his supporters eagerly began chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

Somebody listening to the noise might have wondered why his or her radio was mysteriously transmitting a re-broadcast of the hockey game between the men's teams from the U.S.S.R and the U.S. in the 1980 Olympics.

One characteristic of sports is that it's usually easy to determine winners and losers.

But what does "greatest" mean when we're speaking of nations?

We knew what Muhammad Ali meant when he threw his arms over his head and proclaimed "I am the greatest!"

But what must a nation be really good at to assert that claim? Taking care of the health of its citizens? We're not number one at that. According to the World Health Organization, we're number thirty seven.

Number one at educating our people? Nope. Finland, Norway, Estonia, and Cuba are among the nations more successful at achieving nation-wide literacy according to the C.I.A.'s own world fact book.

Lately it's become evident that we're also not so good at regulating the greed-addled banks and loan companies that have been fronting money to home buyers.

We are number one at consuming a lot of things, and we're still among the leaders at polluting, though that's probably not what Mr. McCain had in mind. But the facts never get in the way of a politician looking for a big cheer, and what politician doesn't understand that no exhortation is more likely to inspire that cheer than "We're number one!"

Though politics has been called a blood sport, it's witless and dangerous to confuse the two endeavors. There's perhaps not much harm in the "We're number one!" chant when the chanters are celebrating a football, basketball, or baseball team. But as the candidates make their way through the remaining primaries, I'll listen for the individual inclined to characterize the U.S. not as "number one," but as one among the two hundred forty five nations and other entities that together might hope to sustain us all not by asserting their superiority, but by cooperating with each other. Those insisting on a sports-related metaphor in this context might think "teammates."

This program aired on January 17, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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