What Does It Mean to Love America?
A letter of love, loathing and patriotism from Shanghai
What I’m Reading
There are so many good Megan Rapinoe tweets but this is my favorite (she is also my favorite).
Jill Lepore is so very brilliant, and I’ve often wondered how she gets so much done — the woman seems to write a book a year, plus she teaches at Harvard, plus she writes some of the best pieces the New Yorker publishes. And she’s done it again with this stunning meditation on the loss of her best friend, and how that motivates her to write for two.
You should definitely look at this cat.
The View From Here
I’m in Shanghai for the next month, part of a teaching program I do here every summer. It really is the best — the young people I teach are fantastic, I absolutely love this city, and I feel more and more comfortable here each time I come. This time around, I found a great yoga studio, so instead of just eating soup dumplings, I am yoga-ing and then eating soup dumplings. It feels pretty good.
This was also Fourth of July weekend, and most of my friends in the U.S. were on vacation or celebrating with hotdogs and fireworks. To be honest, it was a bit of a relief to be away this year. When our president is driving tanks through Washington, children are being separated from their families, and conditions in migrant detention centers have turned deadly, it’s tough to feel enthusiastic about celebrating America.
I know I’m far from alone in this feeling. America is, and has always been, a vastly imperfect place — some years just make that more obvious than others. This feels like a particular low point.
One nice thing about spending time outside of the United States as an American isn’t just that you see how some places do some things better than we do, but that you observe the many ways people love their countries and carve out national identities that don’t hinge on being Number One. “Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth,” David Sedaris is writes in one of his essays in Me Talk Pretty One Day. “And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are 'We're number two!”
The “America is #1” thing gets bandied about on the Fourth of July more than on any other day of the year; on the far-left side of the American political spectrum, the opposite sentiment is more likely to come through, that perhaps America is the worst country in the world, that we are uniquely terrible and oppressive — or perhaps just that we are no better than any other nation. Both of these positions seem facile and performative, and both divorced from reality.
“America is the greatest country on earth” is positioned as an expression of love — you say it because you love America, and if you don’t don’t say it, well, you don’t love your country. You’re unpatriotic, even anti-American. But substitute just about anything else for “America” and you see how sociopathic the “America is #1” thinking actually is. Hopefully you love yourself, but is it an expression of healthy self-esteem to believe that you are the greatest person on earth? Hopefully you love your child, but is it reasonable to believe that your child is the singular greatest human being that ever has or will live (a problem, especially, if you have two children)? Hopefully you love your home and have put in some effort to creating a warm, happy space to live in — but is it really the unassailably best home on earth?
With things we actually love — our children, our partners, our family members, our homes — we are willing to accept flaws and complications, and we work toward improvement. In ourselves, we hopefully recognize there is no “perfect,” but that striving to be better — to be kinder, to be more open, to be more generous — is itself an act of self-love. If we’re decent parents, we don’t base our children’s value on whether they are the top-ranked football player; good parents don’t say their child must be number one in order to be worthy of love (some parents do indeed do this; those parents are exceptionally cruel). I happen to believe that my husband is the best possible partner in the world for me, that we have an incredible connection, and that he is the most thoroughly kind, decent and intelligent person I know. But I don’t think he would be the best husband in the world for every single woman in the world because he is objectively The #1 Best (that would be… insane, and reflective of a pretty profound inability to imagine anyone else’s life).
Love isn’t conditional on the object of your affection being The One and Only Best. Real, sustaining love requires seeing the object of your affection as a full and complicated entity, with loads of excellent qualities and some human shortcomings. Loving someone doesn’t mean you believe them to be flawless or beyond critique. Loving someone doesn’t mean you think they’ve figured out the best and only way to be a person in the world.
So why do we act as though the only way to truly love America is on the condition that it’s the one and only best?
This says so much more about the person saying “America is #1” than it does about America itself. It says that “America is the greatest” patriotism is shallow and narcissistic — that it’s less about America itself and more about the speaker needing some validation, some sense of importance and value in the world.
We can roll our eyes at the America, fuck yeah! Fourth of July jingoism. We can think “America is the greatest country that has ever existed in the history of the world” is both corny and wrong. But we can also look a little deeper at why so many Americans need to believe America is peerless and flawless to believe it is good. What’s missing that, for so many people, their sense of self and their belief in their own value is tied to something as random as where they were born?
(I realize not all Americans were born here; I usually hear these hyper-simplistic expressions of patriotism from those who were, and have a lot more patience for it from those who weren’t).
Americans are indeed lucky. We are, on the whole, safer and wealthier than billions of people around the world. We are also a vastly unequal place, and our best promises remain unfulfilled. But there is much room for gratitude.
But what I see instead are platitudes, not genuine engagement with what we should be proud of and thankful for. That work is more difficult. It means being clear-eyed about where we’ve come from and what we continue to do. When I hear “America is the greatest country on earth,” I don’t hear genuine gratitude. I hear fear.
I don’t necessary relate to that, but I have empathy for it. There must be such comfort in believing that your country will protect you because it is the biggest and strongest and greatest. There must be such relief in believing that your country is safe and stable because people like you made it special — and not because it is both lucky and sustained by those who are dedicated to realizing its difficult-to-reach ideals, not just its flag. It must be scary to see challenged the faith that your citizenship confers upon you a kind of chosen-ness.
There are a lot of incredible places on this planet. There are a lot of places that are dynamic, fascinating, and full of creative, kind and inspiring people, that nonetheless have governments that do abhorrent and truly unforgivable things (I am writing to you from one of those places now). There are a small number of places in the world that mostly do the right thing — they have feminist-minded governments, they take care of their citizens, they are largely open to freedom of expression, they are democratic — that also still manage to do very wrong things. Finding value in a place doesn’t require absolving it of its sins. Finding flaws is not tantamount to hate. This is, for the most part, what I see progressive-minded people try to offer on holidays like the Fourth of July: Hope for what America can be, love for what it promises, a deep sadness for where it falls short — and a commitment for pushing this place to keep its promises.
We are not the first people who have had this idea.
I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
I love this speech — and you should read the whole thing — because it is deeply kind. It is angry, yes. It is hurt. It is determined to expose hypocrisy and hatefulness and harm. And it is, at its heart, an expression of love and patriotism. Why try to heal a wound if you believe it’s without cure?
What Douglass wants isn’t an end to America. It’s to be one of the men in the claim that all men are created equal. It’s inclusion in the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is what it means to love a place. And the values Douglass lauds remain the reasons I can say, entirely without irony, that I do love the United States. Our constitution is a model for the rest of the world. We remain, at least for now, a place where people seek refuge, asylum and safety; we are a place people flee to, not a place where people flee from, and not so long ago we were a place that welcomed more of those people than the rest of the world combined. We were founded on a series of promises that still resonate today, that remain expressions of what so many human beings seek all the over world, within America’s borders and far outside of them.
The promises of equality, freedom, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness weren’t the flaw; the stain on American history is that those promises were only made to a small subset of the population, and brutally withheld from a great many.
I love the part of America that remains hopeful, that tries and tries again to fulfill these promises for more and more people. I love the part of America that recognizes how brittle these promises can turn, and seeks to fortify them. I love the part of America that recognizes how fragile all of this is — our democracy, our relative safety, our country’s physical and economic stability — and would risk their own safety, stability and liberty to protect it.
I look around at the country where I currently find myself and see much to appreciate. There is so much innovation; Shanghai is exceptionally safe; the young people I talk to every day are curious, creative, and hungry for opportunities; there is something fascinating every three feet and so much I want to try, taste, experience and see; life here feels both stable and future-oriented. I can see how easy it might be to look around at how much life has improved in a single generation, at the ease of consumption — the massive Mac and Gucci stores, the glass-and-steel high-rises, the plentiful food, the high-speed trains — and not bother to ask, “at what cost?” I can imagine how easy it might be, if you’re a member of the doing-well majority, to decide that the costs are worth it.
I find things to admire just about everywhere I go. And I often also find myself looking back at my own homeland with an expanded appreciation of what actually makes it great — of the questions we do ask, and what costs so many Americans are unwilling to pay.
Openness is a difficult thing to sustain, especially when it means that people who look different from you, speak different languages, and believe different things can become citizens and claim just as much ownership of your nation and just as much of a right to determine its future as you do. The expansive and unique American promise of free speech is difficult to sustain when speech can lend itself to evil, when it can hurt as much as a punch, when it means the absolutely abhorrent can appear on your computer screen, and when it can upend confidence in the government and the country itself. Democracy is an exceptionally difficult thing to sustain, with its inherent conflicts and tribes, with its requirement that leaders are dedicated to a bigger project over their own desire for power or influence, with its demand that upholding our collective ideals is more important than winning.
Still, we try. It’s in this trying that I see the greatest patriotism, the sweetest optimism, and the biggest love.
There is so much to be proud of. There is so much work to be done. Happy (belated) Independence Day.