Rudy Giuliani thinks that Obama doesn’t love America. There are a lot of articles talking about it, and Giuliani himself is going everywhere to make sure no one misunderstood that he’s absolutely right and not a racist. I think Jonathan Chait has written the best summary of the whole thing, If Giuliani’s Obama Smear Wasn’t Racist, What Was It? He’s very charitable to Giuliani and does a deep dive into the former mayor’s comments. And he finds: nothing. So if Giuliani’s comments were not racist, they were nothing at all. And we all know they were something. The logic ain’t hard.
Ramona Grigg wrote, Yes, Rudy, It Was a Horrible Thing To Say. Thank You. Her point is that the comments were so over the top offensive that he’s done a great favor for Obama. Now reporters will dig up video of Obama saying things like, “I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.” Of course, Rush Limbaugh was quick to jump on board, “I’m the guy who’s been saying for six plus years now… Obama does not like this country.” Brian Powell at Media Matters pointed out, most Republicans politicians will just avoid the subject because among the base, this kind of talk is commonplace.
I’m not especially interested in the controversy. It may be a tired cliche, but it is also a fact that at least half of the Republican popular support is based upon racism. So this kind of racism and more generally the implication that liberals are not “real” Americans is forever spilling over in conservative comments when they don’t think anyone is listening. What I’m more interested in here is how exactly it is that Obama is supposed to “love” this thing called “America.” I agree with what Rudy Giuliani said: I don’t think Obama loves America. I don’t think that Rudy Giuliani loves America. I know that I don’t love America because I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be loving.
Traditionally, the phrase “love of country” is just an expression of jingoism. It is the idea that country is always right, regardless of what it does. It’s the old Stephen Decatur toast, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” If we lived in a democracy, I might be tempted to go along with that. But we don’t. When we go to war, it is usually the government doing it against the wishes of the people. So what Decatur’s toast means in practice is fascism, “Right or wrong, our government!” I’ve never met a liberal or conservative who would go along with that. And given that even the most powerful person doesn’t always get what she wants, I can’t imagine anyone at all agreeing to that.
I remember Bill O’Reilly claiming, “And it is our duty as loyal Americans to shut up once the fighting begins.” But even he added “unless facts prove the operation wrong, as was the case in Vietnam.” The truth is that O’Reilly, like demagogues everywhere thinks people should shut up whenever they are saying things he disagrees with. But if he agrees, it is patriotic to protest. So it is pretty clear that when people talk about loving the country, they don’t mean the government.
But if not that, then what? Really! The people? Given that many conservatives seem to think that President Obama hates the country, I find it hard to believe that they love the American people any more than they love the government. Are we supposed to love Charles Manson? Or are we supposed to think that the American people in aggregate are somehow lovable? Or is it the geography? The climate? The economic system? None of those are specific to America.
What I think the America is that we are supposed to love is some idea of America. And this is dangerous, because none of us has the same idea of what America is. I’ve written a lot about this in the area of economics. Liberals like to complain when Republicans talk about creating jobs. The liberals rightly point out that all Republicans mean by this is, “Cut taxes on the rich! Allow more oil spills!” While it’s true that these things actually will not, in general, create jobs, this is what Republicans think they will do. So when a poll comes out that says that 90% of the American people think the government should do more to create jobs, it doesn’t mean anything.
And similarly, the fact that I love Thomas Paine’s idea of America means something to me. But John McCain’s idea of America is that we should have the biggest military and go to war at every opportunity. And with ideas as divergent as that, there is no “America” that we love. And this is why when conservatives start to talk about the issue, they always fall back on “American exceptionalism.”
But I still don’t understand what is exceptional about America. It is a country — just like 195 other countries. We are an enormously powerful country, but if the rest of the world decided to work together to take us down, it would have no problem doing it. There are great things about America. And there are awful things about America. So this whole matter of loving America is just a stupid game. It means nothing. When Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh say that Obama doesn’t love America, they are just saying that Obama is a doody pants. And that’s about as deep as American politics goes. And that, my friends, is one of the awful things about America.