Can you feel the palpable excitement hanging in the air? That’s right, folks: The 2016 Summer Olympics from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil are almost upon us. Less than 90 days away, the Olympics are Americans’ opportunity to embrace their country by wearing egregiously tacky apparel of national pride, fashion atrocities so horrific that they remind you of the stuff Rodney Dangerfield wore in Caddyshack nearly forty years ago. Oh we love our foam fingers and star and stripes starter jackets, alright! After all, nothing stirs up Americans quite like a good old fashioned Commie beatdown in the midst of the Olympics. It reinforces what America is really great at: thinking that we’re great- even when we’re not.
As Americans, we sure do love telling the rest of the world just how awesome we are. Yeah, take that other nations! Except more often than not, we are not #1 anymore. Areas where we are sadly not leading the world? How about….Life expectancy? (30th), Democracy? (17th), Freedom of the Press? (41st), Scientific Literacy? (33rd) or Renewable Energy Use (27th)? Psssstttttt…….That sound you just heard? That was the air being let out of your balloon.
But we keep on telling everyone how great we are regardless. How many times have you heard a politician suggest that “We have the best health care in the world.”? Not exactly, Herb Tarlek, but keep trying. We’re actually 37th, right behind Costa Rica. That’s right- Costa Rica. You know, the delightful little country in Central America where I had to attach live electrical wires to the pipe in order to get hot water. Right, that Costa Rica. While that rosy perspective on our health care system might have some validity for the very wealthiest amongst us who can afford to pay out the nose for preferred treatment, the rest of us would be better off getting sick just outside of San Jose (which I did incidently, because admittedly our water, at least outside of Flint, is cleaner).
But don’t worry fellow Americans, we are #1 at some things! How about prison population per capita, obesity, school shootings, teen pregnancy, divorce rate, credit card debt, prescription drug use, and government debt? We are whooping the rest of the world’s ass in all of those categories. Do they have Olympic events in these fields? I, for one, am convinced they should. Who wouldn’t want to see an overweight American crushing the competition in a pie-eating contest? Which reminds me- we lead the world in eating disorders as well.
I admit all of this is a bit sobering, but as Americans, we don’t let a little bad news deter us in our unbridled optimism! No, our blithe ignorance insulates us quite nicely from the chilling truth of reality, thank you very much. Take American students, for example. They don’t let unimportant things like facts stand in their way, no siree! Our education system recently placed 35th in the world, narrowly beating out Croatia (USA!, USA!), and in recent PISA testing, American students placed an unimpressive 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science. All of which should have left American students shouting loudly, while waving foam fingers made in the form of the ok sign and stomping their feet, “We are average! We are average!” But instead these kids showed the true indomitable American spirit in the face of adversity. Despite knowing less and studying less than their American peers from forty years ago, these students had higher self-esteem and self-confidence ratings than at any point students were asked to assess their own competency since 1966. In fact, since 1979, American students have seen a 30% tilt towards narcissistic attitudes as they continue to believe they are doing wonderfully when clearly they are not. American kids sure aren’t performing at the top of the list, but no country’s youth has more confidence that they are.
This discrepancy in our country’s youth between ability/performance and belief in self is mind-numbing, but it is also enlightening. We have become a self-congratulatory society, a group of people who like to toot our own horn instead of letting someone else blow it for us (I’ll leave that joke for your own imagination!). Every kid gets at least a B, and every participant earns a trophy. Our athletes showboat after even mediocre performances, and they blame someone or something else when they come up short. We pull our shoulder muscles patting ourselves on the back. In 1990, the average high school GPA was a 2.68, you know, the “gentleman’s C”. Today, that number is a solid 3.0, leading one to surmise that either kids are getting smarter (which clearly they’re not) or they’ve just gotten better at guilt tripping teachers into propping up their false sense of self-esteem.
The problem, of course, is that reality has to set in at some point. Because we are also #1 in medication for depression. You see, eventually, little Johnny and Sally grow up (ok probably more like Ethan and Emma- seriously, has anyone actually named their kid Johnny or Sally since 1956?), and the real world has a powerful way of crashing down on them and reminding them of just how mediocre they really are. That’s when they’ll turn on the Olympics with a six pack of beer and shake their finger proudly in the air, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Yeah, keep telling yourself that, kid….
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com