Neglected in most discussions of patriotism is any stipulated or even clearly proposed definition of what it really means to love one’s country.
The Right is loath to admit it, but what it usually means when it speaks of loving one’s country is loyalty to the president of the United States, the wars he chooses to wage and his other impeachable crimes. This is especially true now that the president is a Republican. Under George W. Bush in particular, this Rightwing devotion to executive supremacy has blossomed into a virtual membership requirement for the conservative movement.
The Right did oppose President Bill Clinton, and may have even disagreed when he said, “You can’t say you love your country and hate your government.” Even though this was uttered in the emotional aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, many conservatives rejected its literal meaning and broad implications. For the Right back then, loving America was completely consistent with despising the state and ridiculing the president. But nowadays, they think that “Bush-bashing” is out of control and a threat to American security.
“America: Love it or leave it,” the president’s defenders say. Some liberals said it when it was their president and their government. When today’s conservatives say it, however, they actually sound like they mean it. Sometimes they even sound like they mean it when they say, “Those who refuse to give a loyalty oath should be deported.”
It’s a clich that you can, contra Clinton and today’s conservatives, love your country while hating your government. And it is true. Or are we supposed to believe that every subject of any government ever to exist — every victim of Pol Pot, Mussolini, Andrew Jackson or Napoleon — who hated the government that oppressed him must have not loved his country?
You can certainly disagree with what the government does and still love your country enough not to want to leave. Almost all habitable land in the world is ruled by governments, after all, and every single one of them is an agency of organized plunder, at a minimum, and extortion and murder in most cases. It is not as though a reasonable person, who is capable of loving the place of his birth and the home of his compatriots, is logically barred from detesting the nearest criminal gang that calls itself a state and lays claim to his region. It is not as though moving from one location, out of hatred of the goons who rule it, will likely take you anywhere totally free of thugs in uniforms and flagged buildings.
Many people have fled their country, despite loving it, to escape tyranny and even to protect their lives from the states that disgraced their homeland. There were Jews who loved Germany who fled from the Nazis. There were Russians who loved Russia who fled from Stalin.
You can love a country and yet leave it, so it’s not exactly a mutually exclusive choice between loving or leaving. Or, you can decide to stay, despite hating the government. Or, in some rare cases, you can successfully secede from the government, leaving it behind, while maintaining the country you love, as the American revolutionaries did more than two centuries ago when they overthrew the British state that was smothering their beloved country. If only we could all leave our governments and do so in peace!
And even if you don’t love your country, why should you feel you must leave? Why is it considered such a threat if some people don’t love the country? Affection is not demanded of people as a condition of staying at a private club, or a restaurant, or a job. You don’t hear people say, u201CYou had better love this hotel, or you can’t stay here.u201D Appeals to love, even when they are appropriate, are rarely coupled with such intimidation and ultimatums, except when it concerns so-called patriotism.
The reason, of course, is that most people who insist that you love the country or leave don’t have any clue what it means to love a country. If you love a friend or family member or close companion, does that mean never being critical when you think the person is doing something wrong? If you think a brother or mother is not reaching his or her full potential, are you supposed to look the other way, and just think, u201CMy family, right or wrongu201D?
If your country, which you love, is acting, insofar as it is possible for such a collective entity to act, in a disappointing, unacceptable, or downright evil manner, is it really love and devotion to that country to look the other way or cheer on the egregious behavior?
I love America, and I don’t intend to leave. The last several years, the government has done some disappointing, unacceptable and evil things. I am even disappointed in my many fellow Americans who apparently have no jealousy of their liberties and no reticence about killing foreigners. But I think even many of them are mostly misguided and don’t necessarily hate America. I don’t think they are acting in a loving way toward the country, but I don’t insist they leave.
However, if we do want to examine who most loves the country, let’s consider what it has gone through lately. Congress has just recently essentially voted to suspend habeas corpus, a principle in English common law that goes back to the days of the Magna Carta. This latest outrage is after half a decade of horrifying government expansion, the introduction of totalitarian police powers and aggressive warfare, and after more than two hundred years of administrations virtually none of which was worthy of the love deserving of a great country.
To keep our sights high, to condemn evil where we see it and show the way toward a freer, more peaceful future for the country and its people — isn’t this the stuff of true love?
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.