As a student at a small Baptist school in southern Arizona, like many kids across the U.S. we had to recite the pledge of allegiance every morning.

Before the start of the first class, all of the students would stand up, right hand over heart, and turn towards the American flag that was hanging on one side of the room. We were usually still sleepy, so we would recite these words drudgingly without much enthusiasm:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

One day there was a kid who refused to stand up and say the pledge. Perhaps he had an issue with uttering the word “God,” but I never asked him. All I remember thinking was, ‘wow, he’s a real rebel’ and expected him to get into deep trouble. In my mind it was such a contrarian action — to go against not only the group but also the ‘supreme’ authority of the teacher.

But he didn’t get into trouble and he continued to sit in silence every morning. A while back Congress ruled that saying the pledge was optional and students could opt out, so while the teachers definitely didn’t like it and sometimes became violent, he technically couldn’t be punished.

I didn’t think about the incident for a long time. I continued to robotically recite the same chant, day in and day out, expressing my loyalty to the flag. It was just something you did, perhaps without much meaning. I imagine like myself many others felt like it was a chore.

A few years later I moved abroad to Lyon, France for two years with my family. They had a nice flag but curiously there was no morning pledge to the nation or the flag, or any other ritual for that matter. Rather, every morning I would scarf down a pain au chocolatattempt to give as many bisous to the girls I had crushes on, and then show up to class where we’d usually have a boring lecture that I could sleep through.

While my testosterone-fueled 13-year old self certainly preferred the French way, I thought to myself, “Don’t they love their country?” Well, they definitely do. I quickly found out the various ways they express their feelings of adoration, patriotism and at times nationalism.

For example, it’s well-known that the French are notoriously picky about polluting their language with foreign words and anglicisms. There is actually a government organization whose sole purpose is to monitor this (Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie).

When a new word enters the sphere of concepts that needs to be expressed, rather than borrowing the word from English (like most languages do), the French make up their own French word. In the case of hashtag it’s mot-dièse, and for Post it Note it’s papillon. I bet a lot of French people don’t care nowadays, but when I lived there my teacher would scold me when I used franglish and would then point out the correct French equivalent.

In another instance my school in Lyon banned ketchup from being served in our cafeteria. That was a real bummer at the time. The claim was that it’s not good for you considering all of the added sugar, which is true, as most kids doused their lunch in it. But I also suspected that it was because they didn’t want to bring in anything ‘foreign’ or disrupt the sanctity of the French cuisine. Although strangely they allowed French Fries and mayonnaise.

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A Subtle Shift

While being so picky about the language was annoying and banning ketchup seemed ludicrous to me, eventually after living a few months in France, my views started to naturally change. When I returned to the U.S, that’s when it really hit me.

I could see that different countries had different ways of expressing their patriotism. They all shared this common goal to unite people; at the same time, they could be so protective and even hostile when it came to non-tangible concepts like culture (which is fluid and ever-changing) or the nation (which is imaginary).

I was being taught that America was great. That I belonged there and should be loyal. The pledge was one method to reinforce this idea, but the teachers, the media and the community I was surrounded by further reinforced this idea that America was the best.

The French were no different here, though. The pride of their language, their food and their heritage were just as strong. They simple expressed it in their own unique way. Every country has their own flag.

I thought to myself, “If both countries think they’re so great, which one was really better? Do other countries feel this way?” I reasoned that yes, other countries must be like this. And after traveling extensively I later found out that yes, other countries all have this pride, this glue that keeps everyone sticking together. Some just tout their peacocks more than others.

By what measure can we assess a countries “greatness?”

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What does “greatness” even mean?

A deeper inquiry quickly reveals the subjectivity of individual preference and the power of national rhetoric. Well, you could measure GDP, military power, healthcare, hygiene, education, job opportunities, civic engagement, income — to name a few.

Using GDP as an indicator (not that it’s a good one), America and China seem to be doing well. But what about the millions of Chinese suffering from respiratory illnesses from over-pollution and smog? Or the millions of Americans dying from opioid overdoses — drugs that they were legally prescribed by their well-intentioned doctors?

Military clout and nuclear power falls short, too. I highly doubt citizens of a nuclear-armed North Korea are living healthy and happy lives under a maniacal dictator. Gun related deaths in the U.S. take twice as many lives than they do in Pakistan and Cambodia.

University education is practically free in France, but there are more job opportunities in the U.S. While many like to think that there are lots of opportunities to become rich in the US, in reality there are more millionaires in Norway per capita than there are in the U.S.

No one in Japan has gone bankrupt from astronomical medical bills thanks to their first-class public universal healthcare program. Healthcare in the U.S unfortunately doesn’t have too much to boast about — American’s spend 50 percent more than any other nation on earth on medical care, but their results and outcomes are in the lower half.

Or maybe greatness is the speed of your bullet train? One fat point for Japan and a negative point for the US, which has the worst train system in the world. That said, the suicide rate in Japan is still the leading cause of death for women between the ages 15–34, and one of the highest in the world. How do you factor that in?

You could go on and on comparing metrics, giving them different weights and come up with some cumulative score. It still falls short, though, because whatever country is #1 on the list doesn’t mean that people living there will be any happier than the bushmen in Kalahari Africa.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari summarizes this well:

“Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”

The point is that not only is it a bad slogan for a political campaign, greatness is simply the wrong question to be asking. There is no best. Saying somewhere is the “best” is simply your belief. Happiness is perhaps a better question to be asking, but still faces the same challenges in assessment as Yuval points out.

America is better than France and Japan is better than America… in my opinion

The problem is that when I was younger I would think that “this place is better than that place,” somehow believing there was an objective truth. That the way we do things in America is somehow better than France, or wherever. When we drill deeper, of course, that’s not the case. It took me some time to get away from thinking this way and detaching myself from the equation. Living abroad was essentially the turning point.

Intellectually this will all make sense to people who have never been abroad for a prolonged period of time. We share this world together and don’t want to fall into cultural relativism or tribalism, although it’s often unavoidable. We want to be more open-minded and accepting of other cultures. But we also have our people and our country to consider. Not to mention, we also want to do what’s best for us individually. Surely we can recognize our differences and be more sympathetic towards others?

In reality, we see that populism can get out of hand and still lead our decision-making when we ignore the reality of an interconnected world. On the other hand, saying we are all ‘global citizens’ is problematic because we are still products of biological and social evolution and predisposed to function best in small groups. The solutions to our increased tribalism and political unrest are probably more nuanced than taking a position at a far end of the spectrum.

As the world unfolds into unchartered territory, intellectualizing will only get us so far. We have to go a bit further and experience the world for ourselves, and having at least some sense of what’s going on in other places will be crucial to fostering greater peace and progress in the world— or at least help prevent us from annihilating the species through nuclear war or rogue AI.

Of course, not everyone has the means to travel abroad. Not everyone is so lucky. But for those that do have the means, it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up. Doing so will force you to consider other perspectives and lead you to appreciate others. Not just their opinion or ideas, but the people themselves.

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