By William Deresiewicz
There can surely be no quicker way to discredit yourself in public discourse in this country than to say that you don’t “love America.” Actually, that’s only a guess: no one ever does say it. No one would dare to, assuming it even occurred to anyone to think about the phrase. But what does it mean to “love America”? Does it mean that you think that the country is perfect, the way you do when you fall in love with someone? That you put its interests above your own, the way you do when you love your children? Or does it mean, as people often imply—especially the politicians who are always loudest in making this avowal—that you love what America stands for? Then why not simply say that you love what America stands for?
I had a student—one of my favorites, as much for his moral seriousness as for his intellectual curiosity—who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He would drop by my office occasionally to give me a pamphlet or two. Once it happened to be the day after the 2006 election. People were practically dancing in the halls. One of his pamphlets was called The End of False Religion.
“I thought false religion ended yesterday,” I said.
“What happened yesterday?” he said.
“There was an election?” I said.
“Oh, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote,” he said.
“Really,” I said, “why not?”
“Because Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’”
I understand, or misunderstand, the concept this way: we should love ideals, not the things erected in their name. We should love justice, equality, freedom, not this or that piece of land, this or that group of people. That, I take it, is what the cultural theorist Edward Said meant when he said that intellectuals should be, not at home everywhere, but homeless everywhere. Nations and governments are always fallen things, always mixed up with a lot of dirty motives. They shouldn’t be objects of veneration. To say you “love America” the way that politicians do is to promise that you’re not going to think about it too carefully.
But loving ideals is itself an ideal. We naturally love what we came from (as even the Palestinian Said did). Do I love America? I’m not sure. I think I maybe love it in the way you love your family. It’s a pain in the ass, but I’m stuck with it. I know that other places may be better, but it’s the one I have. I’m part of it, it’s part of me, but let’s not get too mushy with each other.
All Points will be on hiatus for the holidays. New posts will resume January 9.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.