“Say, I guess America is just about the best country that has ever existed in the history of mankind.”
I have been hearing this assertion all my life and never fully understood what is intended, unless it is merely one of those ahems that we Americans inject into a conversation when we have nothing to say—which, for most of us, is most of the time. When an old friend recently interjected this fervent declaration of faith in American superiority, I wanted to ask him—though it would have been bad manners—what basis for comparison he had. After all, he had never lived in ancient Athens or 18th-century France; indeed, on most of his travels abroad he had been chaperoned by tour guides whose professional raison d’être is to keep the tourist in a state of perfect ignorance.
My mind was wandering, as it so often does these days, when I was brought back to attention by the word Pompeii. On a recent tour of Italy, he had visited Pompeii, where the guide had explained to him some of the conveniences of ancient Roman houses—for example, running water, heated baths, and a sewage system.
“Imagine, this was almost a thousand years ago, and they lived almost as good a life as we have today.”
American greatness, then, would appear to consist in the conveniences of life. It is pretty...