What Is This America We Are Supposed to Love?

Statue of LibertyRudy 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.

Rudy GiulianiI’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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “What Is This America We Are Supposed to Love?

  1. I remember trying to watch the HBO series “John Adams,” with a brilliant cast and excellent production values, and I just couldn’t get into it. After the most interesting points in Adams’s life (his defense of the British soldiers, and early advocacy of vaccination), it became “the birth of America.” And, I’m sorry, America has killed too many people I care about through its policies for me to get all that sentimental about it. If Finland took us over tomorrow and made us more like Finland, I’d happily learn the Finnish national anthem.

    For some Americans, I think there is a definite America they love — the American Dream. Striking it rich. Through the lottery or a talent show or coming up with that great business idea. For a lot of super-right-wingers, it’s some selective notion of “freedom” that defines certain rights as symbolic of human dignity and not others. The right to carry any gun; human freedom/dignity. The right to not get shot, no. The right to live in the biggest mansion and pay no property taxes, yes, the right to a decent school for your kids if you live in a poor neighborhood, no. On and on. It’s simply valuing what you want and ignoring what anyone else may want and arbitrarily calling what you want “freedom.” To place your interests over those of others makes a twisted kind of sense, but considering this a magic super-virtue is ludicrous.

    I like the mixture of regional cultures and ethnic backgrounds; that’s not unique here for sure, but we do have a lot more of it than some places. I like baseball, although it might be more fun to watch in Japan. (Fans there make up songs for every player, every year, and sing them when the player bats. That’s awesome!)

    I like the wide wild public-owned spaces that conservatives want to sell for profit. I don’t visit them as much as some do, but I like knowing they exist, and exist specifically outside the profit motive. They exist to exist and be what they are, and visitors can enjoy them as they wish if they take care to play by the rules and not ruin things for others. That to me is more “free” than how conservatives define freedom. (A logging profiteer who wanted to destroy the Redwoods said he believed in the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules. Other super-rich guys stopped him, thankfully.)

    And while I find the American Dream horrible, I love American dreamers. The failed ones. The ones who really believed they would change everything (and, by doing so, managed to change some important things.) Paine’s one. King’s one. Emma Goldman, Helen Keller. The less-famous, less successful people, too. Tons of them.

    That to me is the most saddening thing about modern America. It hates dreamers. Our heroic dreamers are Ayn Rand or Steve Jobs, depending on whether one’s a neoconservative or neoliberal (acolytes themselves shed the prefix.) Dreams are reduced to Kickstarter and IPOs. It’s the most slavish notion of freedom imaginable; freedom to be like Blackadder and come up with schemes to please the queen. (In our case, not a single queen, but “the market,” which is cloaked in anonymity, hence if we grovel before it, we’re free.)

    Life is scary. Often soldiers will re-up or prisoners more-or-less intentionally get caught just to avoid the scariness of non-ordered life. Clearly, our upper classes are terrified out of their wits and want their familiar security blankets, The Market & “America”, to reassure them and tell them how to live. Others rely on popular fictions which say how all will be OK if they believe in certain things. Believe in your self-respect, your family, God, Have A Dream (within the acceptable confines.)

    Those all seem very small-minded things to me. (Self-respect, I loathe. Who cares if you respect yourself? Isn’t the important thing to respect everyone, including oneself, equally? Dylan has a line about this near the end of “To Ramona.”) I prefer our dreamers. And we do have them; they’re just marginalized right now. (Nader’s a prime example, that guy just keeps dreamin’ away and ain’t nothin’ gonna stop him.) Our community activists. Who can say these dreamers will be marginalized forever?

    Also, I like libraries. America has some kick-ass libraries! I’m gonna visit one right now, and then maybe spend the rest of the day watching “Deadwood.” America has “Deadwood!” Go team USA!

    • Well put.

      Yeah, America creates some of the greatest idiosyncratics and cranks. But I know that isn’t what people mean when they talk about loving America. In fact, I can’t help but hear conformity in, “I love America.” The lines I think you are referring to:

      I’ve heard you say many times
      That you’re better than no one
      And no one is better than you
      If you really believe that
      You know you got
      Nothing to win and nothing to lose
      From fixtures and forces and friends
      Your sorrow does stem
      That hype you and type you
      Making you feel
      That you must be exactly like them.

      I was looking at your email address the other day and thinking, “Oh, he must be a big baseball fan.” I know what you mean about the Japanese. And it isn’t just in baseball. I wrote about Yuji Koseki last year, who, other than writing the theme from Mothra, is known for writing team songs. Very cool indeed!

      • Yup, you got it with the Dylan. Sorry to drop the rant here! The Wallace post got me thinking, and I’d undergone a long sermon on the importance of self-love, and everything sorta smushed up into a rant. It happens.

        Yeah, I like baseball. “It’s like religion; a great game with shitty owners,” as Jim Bouton put it once. I’d probably be very happy watching any team, I just focus on the local ones because it gives you something to talk about with people. The e-mail is basically something I picked that would be easy for people to remember, back when one’s e-mail server didn’t remember these things for you.

        Sports culture has a strange kind of jingoism about it. Fans who say “aw, this team sucks, I’ll pay attention again when they’re better” are accused of “fair-weather” fandom — as if being a sports fan is some sort of patriotic duty. (OK, to your school-age kid’s swim team, sure. To a corporate enterprise? No!)

        • For some time, I got a cable channel that broadcast the San Jose Giants — the A-Advanced team of the San Francisco Giants. That’s the kind of stuff I most enjoy watching. I still really enjoy the majors, but they are so perfect that it can get a bit boring. An error in the majors is almost shocking. Regardless, baseball is about the only sport I really enjoy watching. Football is boring. And most other games are just far too fast for me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all of them — even football. At the top level, all the people are amazing. But I can watch baseball all day long.

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