Jean Barker

USA: Greatest country in the world?

2013-07-05 10:41

Jean Barker

"Happy 4th.. Lucky to be in this country!!! Hope ur celebration tomorrow goes well."

When I got this well-intentioned but completely weird email from a virtual stranger it took me a while to recover from the giggles.

I love America. I do! Don't laugh. I love it here. I also love South Africa, though, so sometimes it's kind of weird when people assume that I am escaping from something by coming to the USA. It's incredibly bad manners, but I don't even think the people who say things like this even realise it.

I mean, seriously: "Happy 4th.. Lucky to be in this country!!!"

"Lucky?" Sure, I love being here. And I do feel lucky. And studying film here is my dream and a massive privilege. And the free Fourth of July fireworks are great.

I have felt lucky to be in most of the 20-odd countries I've been to - not because I wanted to leave Africa but because I wanted to broaden my world. I love the smell of different air, exploring new things, challenging my assumption. Travelling abroad is exciting and a privilege. I have loved everywhere I've been... except maybe England and Germany. That's just my personal preference.

To me, America is merely one of many great countries. But Americans would disagree: "America is the greatest nation/country in the world" is something people feel free to say, at sports games, at political rallies and well...whenever they think they get the chance.

The whole recent presidential election was about "making the USA the greatest country in the world again". Who says it ever was? And how would they know? Most Americans who do travel only go to Canada or Mexico. More than half of Americans have never left America. The saddest thing about this is that, when surveyed to find out why, they said this was because they don't think there's anything worth seeing that's not in America. Spot the problem?

What's the greatest country in the world?

But I love South Africa, too, and yet I feel no need to say it's the "best country in the world". What for - it's not a competition, is it? Or... is it?

Since most Americans aren't qualified to assess whether America is, in fact, the greatest country on the planet, I did a bit of research to see if social science had anything to teach me. What, after all, makes a country "the greatest"? The degree to which it gets to tell other countries what to do? The number of burger joints per square mile? The richness of its culture? Education? Beautiful places? Money? The availability of hand sanitiser at supermarkets? In all these areas, America does pretty well.

So you'd be surprised to learn that the US is not, in fact, number one according to any source.

The Happy Planet Index for 2012 says the US is only the 102nd happiest country on earth (South Africa is an even more miserable 142nd place). Costa Rica, at the top of the pile, beats Disneyland for the title of "happiest place on earth".  

But that doesn't mean you or I would be happier in Costa Rica, or Palestine (ranked above the USA at number 30).

See, in my opinion, no matter what almost everybody in America seems to casually assume without leaving their home state, it appears that according to another survey, wherever is home is generally greatest. This is evidenced by this site's praise for countries you generally hear negative things about like, well, Pakistan, on the Top 10 Best Countries in the World list. The list is dominated by countries with plenty of internet access and lots of English-speaking citizens. USA is listed as number two...after India!

South Africa is only at number 53, but it has its own fan base. It seems, based on this, that there are many "best places" on this planet. Where your best place is depends to some extent on who you are and what makes you feel at home.


- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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