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Time Essay: Loving America

14 minute read
Henry Grunwald

Loving America is a very special task. No other country makes quite the same demands in being loved, nor presents quite the same difficulties.

In most other nations, patriotism is essentially the love of family, of tribe, of land, magnified. There may well be an ideological admixture. The France of the Revolution and Napoleon, for instance, proclaimed the rights of man. Liberty, equality, fraternity were useful enough to overthrow an order and kill a king. But France’s love of her earth and her produce, her landscape, her language and her money—those are the things French patriotism is really about. So it is with other European nations. The songs and the poetry of patriotism are filled with scenery: with rivers and mountains, with cities longed for, with valleys lost, with castles conquered. American patriotism has much less of this specific sense of place. “From sea to shining sea” or “purple mountain majesties” are somehow unconvincing.

It is possible to be deeply moved by the endless American plains, and the settlements defiantly set down in the midst of this vastness, by the coast of Maine or the Rockies or the desert. But that is not loving America. Loving America means loving what it stands for as a political and social vision. Although the great American epic is the conquest and taming of a continent, American patriotism is not concentrated on geography but on a historic event and an idea. The event is the creation of the United States as a fresh start, a different dispensation. The idea is freedom. Both notions have been distorted or perverted at times —that happens with all patriotism. But even when it is misused, American patriotism remains ideological more than racial or ethnic. When the French carved up Germany or the Germans carved up France, it was done for the greater glory of each nation, with firm belief in the innate superiority of their own people.

Whenever Americans went to war, they may have been seized by jingoism to some extent, but more than anything else Americans believed they were fighting for ideas, for a system. It may have been naive to think that other countries were waiting to be given the blessings of democracy, free enterprise and individualism, but that is what Americans did believe.

The U.S. was not born in a tribal conflict, like so many other nations, but in a conflict over principles. Those principles were thought to be universal, which was part of the reason for the unprecedented policy of throwing the new country open to all comers. That not only served to make the U.S. a world power in sheer numbers (compared, for instance, with Canada, which kept its population small and has complained ever since about being overpowered by its southern neighbor). It also greatly reinforced the abstract and ideological nature of American patriotism. The millions from other lands and other cultures had different loves for many different plots of earth, languages, traditions. The unifying love had to be for America as an idea.

In part, this helps to explain the unusual stability of American institutions. In Europe it is possible to shift loyalties from king to republic, from democracy to dictatorship, and still love one’s country. In the U.S. loyalty must be to the institutions themselves. At the same time this explains the extraordinary degree of American unease, selfcriticism, dissatisfaction with leadership. If Congress functions badly, if politicians are corrupt, if Presidents do not inspire, this is seen as a breakdown of the whole American enterprise.

We still perceive America as something unprecedented in history, as an experiment, and as such something that must “work” in order to prove itself over and over again. Hence America demands that love be given not once and for all, but that it be constantly renewed and reaffirmed. That is why both American patriotism and American self-criticism can be so shrill. Attacks on America from within are usually prompted by disappointed love. “My country, right or wrong” is not a very American slogan. We Americans have a hard time accepting a situation in which our country is wrong, not because we are more arrogant than other people, but because our country’s rightness is our soil, our home. One loves one’s birthplace or one’s parents because they are one’s birthplace or one’s parents, regardless of whether the place is especially attractive or the parents especially worthy. One loves them because they exist. America demands to be loved not because it is, but for what it is—and not only for what it is, but for what it does. By its own insistence, to love the U.S. is also to judge it.

Thus, amid the chorus of congratulations on this Bicentennial, America virtually demands that we face the question: Just why do we love America? Amid corruption and commercialism, violence and disorder, resentment and confusion, just what are the country’s qualities that we cherish? One loves America both for its virtues and its faults, which are deeply intertwined. Indeed, one loves America for the virtues of its faults.

One loves the almost obsessive American need to believe, the resistance to cynicism, even if that sometimes means oversimplification and moralizing. One loves the unique American restlessness, the refusal to settle for what is, even if that sometimes means a lack of contemplation and peace. One loves the fact that America sees itself as the shaper of its own destiny, both private and public. While psychology, sociology and determinist historical theories have become massively fashionable, there is still a strong strain of resistance to the notion that man is formed by environment, by outside powers, or that the nation is in the grip of immutable forces. This rejection of fate, this insistence that everything is possible, is surely the dominant American characteristic, and at the heart of its genius. Other nations cringe before fate, or endure it nobly, or outlast it patiently. America insists on dominating, on bullying, fate. This is very invigorating and liberating, for “fate” is only too easily used as a justification for inaction, for maintaining an old order no matter how miserable.

In rejecting fate, the U.S. is the ultimate incarnation of Western, Faustian man. But that posture toward the universe also has immense dangers. There is no shifting of blame, no relief in the notion that “this is the way things are.” We are reluctantly willing to accept as inevitable natural disasters, but little else. Indeed, even nature must be put in its place through technology, and even death is somehow considered an affront, a failure of medicine, or of right living. Disease, poverty and other ancient afflictions simply are not accepted as part of the human condition. Perhaps rightly so—and yet the conviction that they can be banished completely is a tremendous burden because each setback, each delay, is seen as a personal or national failure. That is partly why we Americans are so impatient with the study of history—because history is a reminder of fate. We would rather learn to do than learn to know.

One must love this American view of learning as the tool by which man transforms himself. We Americans believe that everything can be learned, including, to a very large extent, to be what you are not. You can learn to be pretty if you are plain, charming if you are dull, thin if you are fat, youthful if you are aging, how to write though you are inarticulate, how to make money though you are not good with figures. There is something admirable about this, yet nagging questions remain: Where is the line between making the most of one’s potential and reaching for the unattainable? Where is the line between education as a tool and education as a kind of magic? The line is blurred, and that is why when education fails, disillusionment is so bitter.

One loves—with some misgivings—the deep American belief in human perfectibility and goodness. Yet an element of this belief is the fact that America lacks an adequate sense of evil. In the Enlightenment tradition, evil is explained away as a curable flaw. But even in the puritan and evangelical tradition, the American sense of evil is curiously shallow and optimistic, more concerned with behavior (sex or drink, for example) than with the deeper states of sin. The devil can be banished, and evil can be fought; evil is seen almost as a mere “problem” to be solved. There is little sense that evil is a constant presence and inextricably mixed with good. That is why every new American generation seems to discover evil as if it had been invented only yesterday—and by the older generation. There is not much of the insight that man and society are permanently imperfect.

Hence the shock and surprise when we find out that evil is being done by us or in our name. Hence, also, a kind of inverted pride, a mirror image of boosterism; if one side of the American chorus proclaims that the country is the best, the greatest ever or anywhere, the other side asserts that it is the worst ever, the worst anywhere. Both attitudes are equally false and provincial.

The American self-image similarly hovers between idealism and materialism. Can one love the American attitude toward money? Can one love America in the throes of selling, a country wrapped in one endless, all-intrusive commercial? Can one love America in those moments when the immeasurable is measured in the balance sheet, when the ultimate goal becomes the bottom line?

The American spirit is deeply divided about money. In one sense the faith in money is pure: it need not, as it does in so many older societies, apologize for its existence. Money is what it is—good in its own right, a sign of success, if perhaps no longer of divine grace. Yet this view is at war with an older tradition from which, even in a country that slights history, the imagination is never quite free: whether in the Bible or in fairy tales or in great works of fiction, money is held in contempt. The great callings are not trade or commerce but the state or the military or the church or scholarship. The great legendary virtues are not thrift—and its explosive extension, profit—but courage, kindness, faith.

This conflict, old and obvious, is being revived all over the globe today in a revolt against money—against capitalism and the consumer society. What is forgotten all too easily is that money was and is a tremendous liberating force, a great equalizer. It destroyed the old class structure and enabled anyone to rise; money made it possible for people without distinguished birth, without land and sometimes even without education, through enterprise or luck or both, to change their place in life. All this would be little more than a familiar academic footnote if it were not for the fact that to Americans the liberating force of money is still a reality. The bitter complaint always has been that it liberates only a few. We Americans know better. The U.S. has not only created immense wealth, but has organized the redistribution of wealth on a scale far more impressive than anything brought about by later revolutions. In socialist societies people can move and improve their station through ability. But, more typically, they advance through displaying political orthodoxy and learning how to maneuver the vast bureaucratic machine. These societies have their undoubted attractions. They have done away with many of the uncertainties and injustices of money societies. But they have substituted other, and arguably worse, uncertainties and injustices. The majority of the world may not see it that way, but the power of the American capitalist is more benign, and, above all, far more subject to control, than the power of the socialist bureaucrat.

Ultimately all American forces, including money, converge in the passion for freedom—and that is, above all things, what one loves about the U.S. No country carries the belief in freedom farther, the belief that the individual must be free to make of himself what he can, that citizens must be free as far as humanly possible from government. There is about most Americans an attitude toward authority which is immensely bracing and which both dazzles and frightens people of other nations. Most Americans show a self-confidence which to others often appears to be mere swagger, but which is the characteristic of a country that never had either a formal aristocracy or a peasantry.

We tend to think of freedom as a positive and unalloyed good. We speak of “enjoying” freedom. Yet we fail to understand that freedom is not only a blessing but a burden. It is sometimes dizzying to contemplate how much freedom we Americans have undertaken to bear. In politics, in government, in business but also in education and in our private lives, we place immense responsibility on the individual. It can be argued that we bear freedom for much of the rest of the world—not only in the sense of material and military support for the cause of freedom as the West understands it, but in the sense of experimenting with freedom in a kind of vast social laboratory.

Our experiments are not often appreciated by the rest of the world, nor are they necessarily comforting even to ourselves.

We have broken or bent all the traditional framework of rules: in religion, in family, in sex, in every kind of behavior.

Yet we are surprised when the result is both public and personal disorder. We have not grasped the cost accounting of freedom. The great source of our current bafflement is that we somehow expect a wildly free society to have the stability of a tradition-guided society. We somehow believe that we can simultaneously have, to the fullest, various kinds of freedom: freedom from discipline, but also freedom from crime; freedom from community constraints, but also freedom from smog; freedom from economic controls, but also freedom from the inevitable ups and downs of a largely unhampered economy.

Both American conservatives and liberals are embodiments of this paradox. Liberals are forever asking state intervention in the economy for the sake of social justice, while insisting on hands-off in the private area of morals. Conservatives take the opposite view. They demand self-determination in politics, but suspect self-determination in morals. They demand laissez-faire in business, but hate laissez-faire in behavior. In theory, there is no contradiction between these positions. For freedom to be workable as a political and social system, strong inner controls, a powerful moral compass and sense of values, are needed. In practice, the contradiction is vast. The compass is increasingly hard to read, the values hard to find in a frantically open, mobile, fractioned society. Thus a troubling, paradoxical question: Does freedom destroy the inner disciplines that alone make freedom possible?

It is an ancient question, and the way America struggles with it—fitfully, painfully, earnestly, in millions of minds and thousands of communities—is deeply moving. It is the most important struggle going on in the U.S., and its outcome is far from assured. The people willing to undertake this struggle, or even capable of understanding it, are in a clear minority in today’s world. Almost everywhere we see arising a new political feudalism that once again promises a fixed society, an order in which everyone is taken care of—the only price being the loss of freedom.

So one must love America, most of all and most deeply for its constant, difficult, confused, gallant and never finished struggle to make freedom possible.

One loves America for its accomplishments as well as for its unfinished business —and especially for its knowledge that its business is indeed unfinished. One should never love America uncritically, because it is not worthy of America to be accepted uncritically; the insistence on improving the U.S. is perhaps the deepest gift of love. One ultimately loves America not for what it is, or what it does, but for what it promises. True, we know that every national promise sooner or later fades and that fate cannot be forever dominated or outmaneuvered. But we must deeply believe, and we must prove, that after 200 years the American promise is still only in its beginning. ∙Henry Grunwald

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