further reflections upon my post “the greatest country” (and about the writing process)


I have received (much to my surprise) harsh criticisms over the past couple of days in response to a new post of mine:

“the greatest country in the world”

“the greatest country in the world”

It appears that I have committed “thought crime,” that I am guilty of the unpardonable sin of having stated, in the conclusion of my post: “Jingoism aside, we do live in the greatest country on earth. … We are so lucky to. It’s a blessing that is often taken for granted.”

I guess what a critic of the post might say, if trying to be “indulgent,” was that I got carried away in writing the piece and stand in need in correction. (In another country or time, I might have been sent to a “reeducation” camp with the expectation that I would modify my views.)

What follows are some points that I made in a series of emails responding to the critic of my post. In my responses, I have tried to explain what goes into writing such a piece, as I see it, and how this relates to writing in general.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 28, 2017



email, January 24, 2017

It’s a piece of WRITING whereby I, leveraging off something that occurred to me while watching a film, engage in some recollection and reflection.

My key point was that I heard something once that was meaningful and made sense to me, personally (it’s a personal essay, not a position paper); that I learned from it and it was good for me to hear. So, the essay follows a train of thought, arising from personal experience, and focuses on a key idea or thought, which, taken out of context, could perhaps be criticized, but within that context, made a lot of sense to me.

Weren’t we taught in high school that an essay should have a topic sentence and a key point? My English teacher called this unity, a key ingredient of good writing.

I thought it was a good piece of writing. You didn’t. Hypercriticism and taking it apart would eviscerate it. There would be nothing left to say.

A writer remembers something, reflects upon it, tries to run, so to speak, with that thought, impression, sentiment, or idea. Novelists do this and they get picked apart, analyzed, and critiqued to death for things like faulty sentences and muddled thinking.

Not productive.



email, January 23, 2017

I didn’t mean to insult anyone. The TONE of the piece — an important aspect of expository writing – is not arrogant, which term you use to describe my post. What my former therapist (whom I quoted in the post) was saying was that — from his point of view — there was no place like this country. It was a remark of admiration on his part (almost wonder), or appreciation.

Of course, other countries have claims. It’s like saying, “I love New York. It’s the greatest city on earth.” Hyperbole. Of course, I know that perhaps that’s not true, that some other city may be better — if not in my, then in someone else’s opinion. Perhaps I myself have visited or will visit such a place. (And, then, of course, one could endlessly compare the merits of one place — city or country — – vis-à-vis another, from beaches and woodlands to cities, cultural institutions, hotels, cuisine, and so forth.)

One can cite statistics and so forth to show that America can be said to NOT be “the greatest” country by various measures; however, it is not material to my blog that the US is 47th in infant mortality. This wasn’t a post about metrics. It was a simple piece about a feeling or intuition I had based on something I just saw in a movie, which reminded me of something a significant person in my life once said to me.



email, January 23, 2017

I did not say that we are better than others (e.g., foreigners).

I wrote that my former therapist said: “Let’s face it. America is the greatest country by far. No question.” In the next sentence, I tried to convey in the post how I understood the remark — in context. I immediately followed up, in other words, by saying that he didn’t mean it (as I understood his words) as jingoism; what he meant is that the USA was the best place to LIVE in.

His remark, taken out of context, may seem wrong. But, it was made as part of a CONVERSATION. It was sandwiched between a few other words, and made in a conversational context, in which one has to infer the intended meaning. One doesn’t just sit there jotting down words or tape recording them, so that you can prove error in a particular phrase or dispute what was said.

Obviously, the statement that “America is the greatest country” — taken out of context — can be disputed. My blog post was an attempt to put the words in context and to show how, in that context, they made sense to and had meaning for me.

It was someone expressing an emotion, a feeling about a place, such as I have about living in New York City.

You note that I repeated something (America is the greatest country) three times, which seemed to vex you as a reader. I did. For the sake of repetition (a rhetorical device), and because the thought occurred to me as follows:

1. when the Tom Wolfe character says it in the film;

2. my former therapist having once said it, as I suddenly recalled;

3. me saying it at the end of the post by way of recapitulation.

I do not know exactly what the Tom Wolfe character says in the film when he gets off the boat and meets his editor, Max Perkins. I was quoting as best as I could from memory. I tried to find the film script on the Internet, but it is not available.

You made the point, by way of rejoinder, that the USA is not a great country for everyone. “For blacks in Watts?” you ask.

Every country — I am sure it’s true of Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia — has downtrodden people. This is beside the point as far as my blog post goes. I was trying to make a general observation or point about Wolfe’s and Dr. Colp’s point — that, hearing it, I thought, “you know what, America really is a great place.” Am I permitted to entertain such a thought notwithstanding the related thought that it’s not great and never has been for large swaths of the population?

When one writes a personal essay or blog, one has to be entitled to follow one’s thoughts. A train of associations: the film, my musings, Dr. Colp’s remark, my previous anger at our government and anti-American feelings (shared with many students of my generation at the time), and so forth. That was my focus.

Maybe Dr. Colp didn’t say it in quite the way you would have liked him to have said it.

Maybe I didn’t phrase it quite the way you would have liked me to, or state my conclusion in the words you would have used.

I wrote the blog.

Next time, perhaps I should confine myself to writing something like: “I think America is a nice place to live despite its imperfections. l personally like living here.”

Should I confine myself to saying that, it would probably not offend anyone. It would be a dull piece not worth reading. And, it would not accurately reflect my experience.



email, January 23, 2017

The post was not written in an arrogant spirit and was not meant that way.

There was nothing xenophobic about what I said.

The thrust of it was, I am very happy about my good fortune to be able to live in America.

The statement that the USA is a great country is a generality which obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, to each and every place or situation.

Sometimes one entertains, is struck by a thought which runs counter to one’s previous thinking, what might be called a heuristic or “pregnant” thought.

“Heuristic” or “pregnant” in the sense that my former therapist’s remark was for me those things: revelatory, inducing reflection and modification of thought and opinions I hadn’t questioned. It made me think anew about something — not right away — but I thought about what he said and thought to myself that perhaps my UNpatriotism notwithstanding, I was fortunate to live here.

Heuristic (adjective) — enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.



email, January 23, 2017

What I said was that I did not think that my therapist’s remark was made or intended to be taken in the jingoistic sense, but meant that America was a great place to LIVE.

Also, I was leveraging off a very similar comment made by the Tom Wolfe character in the film, which brought my therapist’s comment to mind.



email, January 23, 2017

I am totally at the opposite pole from being a xenophobe or an America First, “my country right or wrong” type. (Few people know that that remark was originally made by nineteenth century naval hero Stephen Decatur. I happen to know this since I once wrote an educational play, which was published, for students in social studies classes about Decatur’s exploits.)

I have always embraced and admired foreign cultures.

I believe this should be evident in many respects, from language study to my friends to my intellectual and cultural interests and enthusiasms. It goes back to my experience attending conferences of Student Religious Liberals; French, Russian, and Spanish courses; and my admiration of Pitirim A. Sorokin and Russian culture when practically everyone seemed to be anti-Soviet and regarded the USSR as mortal enemies to be feared and distrusted.



email, January 23, 2017

I took my former therapist’s comment at face value. I don’t think he meant to imply that there weren’t other great countries, places, or countries; or that we as a nation have always been right, which jingoism would seem to imply. What he meant was that — for various reasons — America is a wonderful place to live and has, at the minimum, much to offer. I agree with what he said in the sense that it was taken and understood by me.

I am glad he said this to me, given how unpatriotic I tended to be in those days.

2 thoughts on “further reflections upon my post “the greatest country” (and about the writing process)

  1. Pete Smith

    Seeing all your lengthy responses to the point I made about your “America is the greatest country” post suggests to me that I hit a big nerve here. My point simply was that I don’t like all these self-praising evangelicals saying America is better than every other country in the world. Your timing wasn’t great, given Trump’s ascendancy and constant repetition of this point (although it of course conflicts with his promise to make America great again). Yes, I like America and I’m not sure I’d want to live anywhere else (except maybe Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Bhutan, Iceland, Italy, England, Finland or Sweden, all great countries too and all of which I have visited) and I’d even agree that it’s very possible that, faults aside, America is as great as any other country out there. But chest-beating American exceptionalism bothers me still, especially in this environment.

    That said, I like that you’ve separated your thoughts on rhetoric into a separate blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roger W. Smith Post author

      Pete — re whether my post (the one that elicited a follow up post) echoed Trump or reflected “chest-beating American exceptionalism” (which you do or do not explicitly attribute to me?), I think I did a very good job of answering, commenting upon, responding to this. I do appreciate that you visited my new site and left a thoughtful comment.



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