Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Love Mundane

I do not believe—and I know this is a horrible thing to say—but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country. With all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani
For my part, I don't think this is about what President Obama believes, or does not believe. This is about the intersection of (and this strikes me as hokey even as I type it) superiority and lovability. Or to put it another way, how much can you love a person, institution or a nation that you understand is no better than any other? In the article from The Economist where I first found Giuliani's quote, the author notes that: "The ardent and unclouded quality of love that Mr. Giuliani and [Kevin] Williamson find missing in Mr Obama is largely the privilege of those oblivious of and immune to America's history of injustice and abuse."

In my own dealings with people who strike me as more conservative than myself, I have encountered several who appear to hold to the opinion that in order to see a person as being worthy of respect, heroic or, basically, exceptional, one has to see them as morally elevated - even if that means deliberately ignoring what one understands the truth about that person to be. As one conservative acquaintance of mine put it: "There is no reason to take note of the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves other than to diminish his standing as a hero." And as problematic enough as this would be when it comes to dealing with individuals, it's not difficult to imagine the impossible standards this creates for an entire nation, especially when history comes into play.

The first time I was accused of "hating my country," it was because I rebutted the indictment of President Obama as being the architect of a national shift away from a historical pattern of respecting universal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I pointed out that, in the past, the United States had countenanced the massacres of Native Americans, the internment (and then theft of property from) of citizens of Japanese descent and laws that restricted whom various non-whites could marry. But I also pointed out that none of these things were true today. And for making the case that the arc of American history bent towards justice, I was told: "It's too bad that you hate your country." This from someone who felt that President Obama's policies, and the people who supported them, had damaged a once-pristine nation beyond salvation.

The expectation that patriotism means pretending the bad part of history never happened may appeal to people for whom reminders of the less-than-spotless parts of America's past feel like indictments of themselves, their ancestry or both. And it may have its uses, in enabling them to see themselves as superior in patriotism to those of us who see that America has improved over time, and, by virtue of not yet being perfect, is still improving. We can be cast as ungrateful, unpatriotic or hateful and thusly unfit for public service. But if loving your country must of necessity entail a refusal to see it as it was or is, what is it that is really being loved?

Rudy Giuliani appears to demand that President Obama love him, and his audience, for what they desire to see themselves as - the most recent generation of the exceptional inhabitants of a superior nation, rather than as simple human beings who live out their lives in a nation (and a world) of similarly human people. Because the real problem that comes from understanding the troubled history of the United States isn't that it leads one to see the country is inferior to others - but rather just like them. "All our flaws" do not render us exceptional in such a way that the rules are different for us. Instead, they render us like people the world over. The willingness of Americans to see themselves as exceptional when compared to others did the same thing to them as it has done to people the world over - allowed them spread misery and suffering and think themselves righteous while doing it. The arc of history does not bend towards justice because the powerful people, who see themselves as superior, decide that the time has come to be more charitable to those beneath them. It bends because we come to see ourselves as more and more alike and the empathy this builds makes atrocity difficult.

Love, of anything, is a gift, and one that we give as it suits us. If it suits President Obama to love an unexceptional nation, I find no fault in that.

No comments: