Culture

Loving a Flawed Country

(Photo: Piotr Zajda/Dreamstime)
We can still feel patriotism, even when our countrymen let us down.

How should we feel about our country when it has failed to live up to our values? That’s the question that lies at the heart of many of our political debates. It connects arguments as far apart as last year’s National Anthem protest by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the discussion of a new book about how the Nazis cited American race laws in establishing the legal framework for their nightmarish regime.

The premise of Yale law professor James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law is so chilling that the average American will probably want to avert his eyes. No, Whitman concedes, the American government and its citizens never committed crimes on par with those of the Nazi regime . . . but those victimized by the lash, forced into reservations, or formally given second-class status might find that distinctions between the Reich and the Republic are not so clear. Nazis looking for precedents and examples of legal systems dividing people by race found way too many examples to study, cite, and emulate in America’s history.

Noah Smith, a former Stony Brook University professor, examines the discussion of Whitman’s new book and worries, as he said on Twitter, that “‘America = Nazis’ is becoming the standard, accepted view of history on the center-left.” In a series of tweets, he pointed out that our history is not set in stone; it is constantly rediscovered, reinterpreted, and rewritten. The history we learned may be quite different from the history our children learn:

You can look at American history and find tons of atrocities. Slavery. Native American ethnic cleansing. Jim Crow. Chinese Exclusion Act. But you can also find plenty of the opposite. Abolitionism. Civil Rights. Reparations for Japanese-American internment victims. Which of these is the “real America”? Which strand of American history represents the true, essential character of the nation? That is a matter of interpretation, and narrative. To a certain extent, we choose in the present which of these narratives to embrace.

If we can’t decide on what America was in the past, it’s certainly not any easier to define the America of the present.

When Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem last year, he looked at the United States and concluded that whatever we as a nation may have that is worth celebrating and saluting, it does not sufficiently outweigh the outrages that upset him so. (The quarterback, currently a free agent, said he will not continue his protest in the upcoming season.)

If we can’t decide on what America was in the past, it’s certainly not any easier to define the America of the present.

Kaepernick’s alienation isn’t hard to find across the political spectrum; a modest variation is found in every sneer that dismisses the public as “the sheeple” who are too confused, easily distracted, compliant, and zoned-out to care about what’s really important.

Do you feel as if the country is full of hopeless fools, shrugging or even cheering all manner of outrages? If you’re feeling pretty good these days, how did you feel on the morning after Election Day 2012? If you loved that day, how did you feel in 2004? 2000? 2016?

At times, gloomy American conservatives have looked at their country and found it hedonistic and abandoning traditional values lackadaisically, ignorant of its own history, lazy and unwilling to take responsibility, dependent, whining, spoiled, and unappreciative of its freedoms.

Gloomy American liberals see a country obsessed with material success, happily embracing selfish consumerism, callous to the poor, quick to lash out at those who are different, and prone to violence.

Some of us are outraged that our country doesn’t offer government-covered health insurance for all; others, that it allows abortion on demand. We can be outraged that our country invaded Iraq or that it did nothing as Syria turned into a charnel house. We can seethe at the fact that our country executes those on death row or that many of those convicted of murder will live out their days, housed and fed at taxpayer expense.

But are those reasons ever enough to make us stop loving our country? Should they ever be?

You can look at America and see it as so flawed that its worst policies may have influenced the Nazis. (Of course, the Nazis were looking for any excuse or justification they could find; if America had been a paragon of racial harmony and respect for all, would Adolf Hitler and his gang have been any less hateful and destructive?) If you want to hate America, there’s no shortage of sins, crimes, and flaws to cite . . . but every country has those. The very nature of love is that we look beyond the flaws. This is how we love everything else in life — our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, and our community. Nothing human in this world is perfect; so love means accepting human frailty and fallibility.

Perhaps some historians will eagerly embrace this notion of America as a malevolent force in the world, an endlessly hypocritical, genocidal, enslaving, violent, exploitive place. But that interpretation is as closed-minded and one-sided as those who refuse to see any flaws in the country.

When you look around at the 325 million Americans, living in almost 90,000 communities, many giving and volunteering for 1.5 million nonprofit organizations to help their fellow citizens around the world, if you can look at all that and not find anything worth celebrating, it’s pretty clear that the problem isn’t with the country, it’s with you.

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