Communities

America's fantasy relationship with itself is tearing us apart.

by Rachel Reilich

November 9, 2018
Olly Scarff/Getty Images.

What does it mean to love one’s country? 

I found myself asking this question upon reading an article in the New York Times last week: Trump’s America: Aggrieved and Adoring Voices From Inside the Presidential Bubble. I was taken in by the accompanying photograph: two women decked out in head-to-toe USA paraphernalia. They look like rabid fans at a football game or pop concert—patriotism as Beatlemania. But is that love? Or is that something else? 

When it comes to other forms of love—for family, friends, and especially romantic partners—we subject our bonds to endless scrutiny. In early adolescence, borrowing narratives from novels, TV shows, and celebrity culture, we understand love mainly through fantasy. Then, as we gain experience and grow into adults, ideally, our understanding evolves. Relationships, we realize, are “nothing like the movies.” For better or worse, love, like the people who engender it, is mutable, mysterious, and rife with contradiction. Gradually, we let go of the fantasies of youth. People are flawed, we realize. Love isn’t easy. But there’s immense value in that. Love rooted in reality is richer and more rewarding. Love rooted in reality is, well, real. 

And yet, when it comes to love for country—as the photo of these two women suggests—nuance is supposed to go out the window. There’s a rigidity to love for America in America—a resistance to growth and complexity. Patriotism, we are told, should be simple, unwavering, and pure, free of criticism and dissent—much more like loving an object (or objectified person) than an actual human being. 

But does that make sense? A country, after all, is comprised of human beings: it’s an organism, not a “thing.” As such, the love we feel cannot, on principle, be simple. As in marriage, love for country is dynamic, meant to be “worked on.” As citizens, it is crucial we acknowledge and accept that complexity—not pretend it isn’t there. To do otherwise is to remain in a sort of suspended adolescence—to prefer an idea over reality. 

And that isn’t patriotism. It’s nationalism. 

Let’s dive further into this distinction. Merriam Webster defines patriotism as, “love for or devotion to one’s country,” and nationalism as, “loyalty and devotion to a country.” The definitions are deceptively similar, and one might be tempted to see them as virtually interchangeable. But look closer. “Love” appears once, as an ingredient integral to patriotism, not nationalism. In love’s stead, nationalism requires loyalty. While loyalty is an action, and relatively straightforward, love is a feeling (as well as an action), with infinite varieties and expressions. Famously, the Greeks have six words for six distinct categories of it—loyalty gets all of one. 

Which underscores the initial point: patriotism, like love, is complex. Nationalism is not. Patriotism tolerates—even requires—criticism. Nationalism does not. Patriotism demands maturity. Nationalism does not. Patriotism is akin to relating to another human being, acknowledging their myriad flaws and idiosyncrasies, the good and the bad, the dark and the light—while nationalism is akin to worshipping a Justin Bieber poster on your closet door, what Junot Diaz describes as, “a shadow blasted in the wall.” It doesn’t interact with you. It doesn’t exist or change or challenge. It’s an idea, not a reality. When you love an idea over reality, then you’re a groupie, not a partner. 

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images


And yet, many prefer it, seduced by the “all or nothing,” thinking country-singer Merle Haggard exemplified in his wildly popular 1970 song, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” 

I hear people talkin' bad,
About the way they have to live here in this country
Harpin' on the wars we fight
And gripin' 'bout the way things oughta be…

If you don’t love it, leave it.

But consider these lyrics through a relationship lens. In “Harpin’ on the wars we fight,” Haggard personifies the dismissive husband telling his wife to, “drop it, already.” Hardly the model for a healthy partnership.  

According to another New York Times article:

President Trump has spent his 21 months in office labeling his critics as unpatriotic. N.F.L. players who kneel during the national anthem possibly “shouldn’t be in the country,” he has said. Journalists who write unflattering stories are “enemies of the people.” Democratic lawmakers who did not clap for his State of the Union address were “treasonous.”

But what he is describing here is lack of loyalty, not love. Does anyone, even his most ardent supporter, believe Trump capable of mature love?  His relationships are transactional, not transformative, and objectifying, not personal. Why should his brand of patriotism be different?

America is far from perfect. The country was founded on slavery and genocide. Our economy depends on the exploitation and oppression of minorities. We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet millions toil in poverty. Our public education system is tragic: ineffective, underfunded, and (increasingly) unsafe. We quake in fear of “terrorists” and “caravans” while homegrown killers invade our places of worship, concert venues, dance halls, and schools. Our healthcare system is a joke. We self-medicate with spending, trolling, opiates, and fast food.

America is deeply, overwhelmingly flawed.

America is also wonderful.

America is Route 66 and purple mountains majesty, baseball games and surfing, fireworks, and Mardi Gras. America is Bruce Springsteen and Elvis, Billie Holliday and Tupac, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. It’s the Statue of Liberty and Watts Towers and bald eagles and rodeos and Halloween. It’s light bulbs and telephones and the polio vaccine, the constitution and cat memes. It’s all the pride-generating stuff that fills our hearts—the reasons we fell in love with the damn place to begin with. 

But to only see that side: that isn’t love. It’s fantasy. It’s back to Bieber, idealizing a two-dimensional image instead of an actual human being. It’s not patriotism. It’s Americamania.

Only through acknowledging America’s flaws—whether that mean taking a knee at a football game, cornering Senators in elevators, protesting injustice, or, yes, criticizing the president—do we engage with the country as it really is, and allow ourselves to experience “love for country” in its truest and finest sense: powerful, complicated, messy, expansive, frustrating, rewarding, and—above all—real. 

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America's fantasy relationship with itself is tearing us apart.