In my book What’s So Great About America, I ask: Why do millions of immigrants seek every year to come to America? Why is the idea of America so fascinating and attractive to people—especially young people—around the world?
Critics of America, both at home and abroad, have an easy explanation for why the American idea is so captivating and why immigrants want to come here. The reason, they say, is that America represents “the bitch goddess of success.” In this view, immigrants flock to the United States for the sole purpose of getting rich. The critics hope to demean America by associating it with greed and selfishness. Their explanation, however, is so partial that it amounts to a distortion. It misses the deepest source of America’s appeal.There is enough truth in the critics’ account to give it a surface plausibility. Certainly America offers a degree of mobility and opportunity unavailable elsewhere, not even in Europe. Even more significant, America gives a better life to the ordinary guy than does any other country. Let’s be honest: rich people live well everywhere. America’s greatness is that it has extended the benefits of affluence, traditionally available to the very few, to a large segment in society. We live in a nation where “poor” people have TV sets and microwave ovens, where construction workers cheerfully spend $4 on a nonfat latte, where maids drive very nice cars, where plumbers take their families on vacation to the Caribbean. Recently I asked an acquaintance in Bombay why he has been trying so hard to relocate to America. He replied, “I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat.”