I must confess to being surprised by how Jonah characterizes some comments I made on The Editors podcast last week. In a piece published this afternoon, he complains that during a discussion of whether America is an “idea” or a “nation,” “Rich pretty much [echoes] the often-caricatured version of Barack Obama’s American exceptionalism,” and then suggests that none of the other participants pushed back against this in any meaningful way. He writes:
Charlie came closest . . . When asked if he’d still love America if it had different ideals, he said “Yes, but less.” He went on to explain that as an immigrant from a decent country, what appealed to him about America most is its culture and its system of law. He conceded, grudgingly, that if we changed our ideals we’d lose some of the stuff he loves. But at the end of the day he’d still love America regardless of her ideals.
Still, at least Charlie acknowledged that there is some relationship between a nation’s ideals and our love for it (another word for patriotism). He just couldn’t bring himself to say he could stop loving America.
I’m surprised to read these words, because I agree wholeheartedly with Jonah on this. Indeed, given that I was the odd one out in the exchange, I’d have rather expected him to recruit me to his side.
On the podcast, I was asked “If America had different ideals, would you still love her?” I said, “Yes, but less.” Why did I say that? Well, because “had different ideals” — the question I was asked — has never to my knowledge been a euphemism for “became a tyranny,” and so I didn’t feel a need to add a caveat explaining how I would feel in extremis. As I think everyone else on the podcast did, I assumed that we were talking about the prospect of America’s coming to resemble Norway or France or Canada, not some descent into neo-Nazism. That being so, I said that I’d still love the place but that I’d love it “less.” I even explained why, proposing that a change in the legal and philosophical settlement of the United States would inevitably lead to a change in its culture, and that I’d sincerely regret that alteration.
Jonah clearly objects to my use of the word “less.” Indeed, he seems to think that by using that word I ruled out the prospect of ceasing to love America completely. Or, perhaps, that I pushed “never” so far into the distance as to make it unattainable. “He’d still love America regardless of her ideals,” Jonah writes of me. “He just couldn’t bring himself to say he could stop loving America.” But again, this criticism rests upon a question that I simply wasn’t asked — or, at least, that I didn’t think I was being asked. In his piece, Jonah asks what would happen if America became a “continental socialist commune,” or if it abandoned the Constitution and made Kim Kardashian a monarch. And sure, if that happened I’d be out of here. Up until that point, however, the answer is obviously “I’d love it less.” After all, I love Britain and France, even though they have “different ideals” than the U.S. I just love them less than I do America.
Now, if the purpose of Jonah’s exercise is to get me to acknowledge that there is a point at which “less” becomes “no,” then he’s succeeded — though I didn’t actually deny that in the first instance, and in fact I implied as much in the anecdote I told about Enoch Powell and Mrs. Thatcher. But, really, I’m not quite sure what that tells us about America or my view of it. After all, I’d stop loving any country if it became a tyranny — that is, I’d stop loving both this country, which I consider exceptional, and the rest of the countries, which I don’t. It seems to me that the real argument here is between those who think that America’s value is inextricably linked to its ideals (e.g. myself, Jonah), and those who believe that those ideals form just one part of its appeal (e.g. Rich, Michael Brendan Dougherty). Furthermore, it seems that Jonah’s criticism would be stronger if the question had been about exceptionalism, rather than love. Love can exist on a continuum: It is possible to love a place that you believe has lost its exceptionalism, and possible, too, to continue to love somewhere but love it less than you did before. Indeed, if there is a “relationship between a nation’s ideals and our love for it,” then the two must by definition track together. Exceptionalism, by contrast, is much less fluid: A country can’t be exceptional if all the others are, and it can’t remain exceptional if its virtues are common to all places. On these questions, as on many others, I’m with Jonah. I’m a little bit confused that he doesn’t see that.