What It Means When They Talk About Loving Your Country

There were 2 things about Obama's speech here in Tucson the other night that I wanted to discuss. Before I start I should say that for the most part I was impressed and satisfied with his performance. Indeed it was one of the best speeches he's ever delivered, I think, and it was, realistically, about the best thing anyone could have wanted.
But one thing really struck me the moment he said it, and another thing he said got me thinking about it a day later. The first was also wisely noticed and commented on yesterday by Michael Chabon in The Atlantic:


as he moved from an invocation of the innocence and immanence of the dead little girl to a call, part admission, part admonishment, part fatherly exhortation, for Americans "to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations," the speech found its true importance, its profundity. To attempt to live up to your children's expectations—to hew to the ideals you espouse and the morals that you lay down for them—is to guarantee a life of constant failure....

When I heard Obama give that part of the speech I was almost outraged with the sheer lack of realism in the suggestion that it would be possible for this country to be as good as any 9-year old thinks it is.  Well, at least any reasonably privileged white middle-class 9 year old.  And at that moment i couldn't help but get out my phone and I tweeted/facebooked about it - but only one friend, notably a Mexican, seemed to notice it, and he also marvelled that none of my other FB friends said a thing about it, for or against.

Perhaps that means everyone knows how meaningless it is, how stupid it is, to suggest that an innocent child's idea of America could ever be subject to anything but crushing disillusionment and disappointment. 

Because, as I've often written about before and as anyone with a brain is aware, there are lots of problems with this country, more so than many many other countries, especially compared to other "developed" countries, and they are indisputable when you look at the statistics, which I've also written about. Furthermore, serious defects have always existed in this country, and always will, because they're built into the system, into the superstructure, of the nation. Any student of real history knows this.  These things will never ever change.


So asking us to make the country as good as a child would expect is, well sort of like saying "Let's work really hard to make Santa Claus a reality!!" It's just not going to happen.  Unless the child is already not expecting anything because he's brown, poor, abused and opressed.  Then maybe, just maybe, he'll grow up having a better life than he ever dreamed was possible.  (Perhaps that's one reason why immigrants are so important to this society)

But realistically, this unrealistic notion, thrown out like so many mushy, corny things at funerals and memorials, is the kind of thing Obama thought he had to say. It's a myth to keep us going, I guess, another of Plato's noble lies.

Which brings me, speaking of myths, to the other thing I noticed and took issue with in his speech, although only after the Times called attention to it the next day:  He said it should be possible "for Americans to question each other’s ideas without questioning their love of country."

But this is another case of Obama just repeating and perpetuating another myth, another convenient symbol.  Because that formulation implies that it's of ultimate importance to love your country. To love America, and that the biggest insult, the biggest disrespect shown to someone, is to say that they don't love America, or don't love it as much as you do.

I'll tell you this: if someone accuses me of not loving America as much as you, that's fine. Find me someone who says that about me, and I'll show you someone that probably doesn't love justice, or peace, or equality as much as I do.  Because I love all those things far more than I love this country.

When someone says you don't love America, this is what they're really saying:  You don't deserve to have a seat at the table. You don't care enough, or the same way as I do, and therefore your ideas and your power and your right to be involved are invalid.

But everyone on this planet, not just Americans, and not just rich people, and not just middle-class people, but everyone is people, with the same natural rights, and everyone deserves justice and life and liberty. And I put that above my country.  I will not use violence or break the law or conspire to overthrow it, but I will not "love America" until "America" treats everyone the same, with decency and dignity and fairness. And feeling that way does not remove my right to participate. In fact it makes my motivations and goals even more valid than any hyperpatriot, because I act not just for the selfish benefit of at most 5% of humanity. I will work to make this country and the world better, but the United States of America deserves no love, not until it's at least half the country that a nine-year old would expect it to be.

Hmmm. Your realism is noted,

Hmmm. Your realism is noted, and important. And, I also wonder about unconditional love. No, America is not the same as a small child, or even a dog. But I worry that when we begin a practice of putting conditions on things (people, or countries, even), before we are willing to love them, then maybe we miss the whole point of love. Or we miss the opportunity, at least, to see what is possible when love is given freely and fully. Do we say, "Doggie, I will not love you until you stop barking"? Do we say, "Spouse, I will not love you until you stop being irritated with my mother?" or "Child, I will not love you until you stop wetting the bed?" These are perhaps trivial examples compared to a country that still lets racist policies slide and thinks it's okay to carry guns in its pocket. But the principle is the same. Is it not possible to love someone and ask them to be better? Is love not an essential requirement for that process of bettering? I think it is. So, we can love our country, and at the same time strive to make the young girl's ideal into a reality. All the while we continue our work for justice and equality, because that, too, is what love asks of us. Outrage is a strong word. We may never be as free and equal and beautiful and just as Christina-Taylor Greene imagined we could be. But if I'm going to aim for anything close to her vision, you can bet that the first action I'm going to make on the trip is love.

All best, Kimi

Thanks for your thoughts,

Thanks for your thoughts, Kimi.  There are different types of love.  For me the love of country is not the same as interpersonal love. A love of country, in the context I'm talking about, just means patriotism, a sort of rah-rah-we're-number-one kind of mentality. So by definition, I can't love this country if I'm honest with myself, because it's way way too far from being #1 in anything.   I think I can strive toward make the WORLD a place that can live up to Christina's ideals, without having any emotional LOVE (like you'd love a dog or a family member) for this country in particular, or any country.  In fact it seems not really valid to me to equate the love of any institution to the love for another living thing. They're just different.

If you want to know more about the difference, see


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.