Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…
Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.
One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.
Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …
The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.
The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.
The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.
Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.
Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.
My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”
The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.
For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.
It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.
There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …
When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.
After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …
We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.
Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.
I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.
After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.
I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.
Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.
And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?
Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.
Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.
When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.
Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.
I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.
Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.
America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?
Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?
Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.
Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.
Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.
We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.
Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.