To Improve Your Country, You Must Love It First
Patriotism is a prerequisite for progress.
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The age-old accusation leveled at the left from the right is that they hate their own country. The left’s age-old rejoinder was always “We love our country too, we just want it to be better.” Nowadays, this dynamic is starting to warp at the edges.
The political right never had the monopoly on patriotism they imagined, but the patriotic pretensions on parts of today’s right are little more than roleplaying games. It’s hard to claim the mantle of American patriotism when you’re not so hot on democracy. In the immediate aftermath of the 2021 US Capitol riots, an attempt by mob force to prevent the 2020 election results from being certified, 45 percent of Republicans, a plurality, told pollsters they supported the actions. Nine months later, about the same number said they didn’t think it was important to find and prosecute the Capitol rioters. Sorry fellas, but you don’t get to be the arbiters of patriotism after that, no matter how much patriot™ kitsch you plaster yourself with. There ain’t enough star-spangled Punisher skulls to pave over that highway of horseshit. There’s even been a measured decline in self-professed national pride among Republicans, both during and after the Trump years.
While the left were never quite the self-hating anti-patriots they were painted as, today’s affluent progressive left has moved remarkably closer to the “America is an irredeemable hellscape” camp. 10 percent of the US, composed almost entirely of people left-of-center, say that they are ashamed of their country most of the time. This is twice the shame-rate of Germany — Germany, a country that knows a thing or two about being ashamed. Much of what we’ve seen from the leftist activist class, the DEI (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”)-industrial complex, and their effect on major institutions have not exactly conveyed the theme that America is a good place, and leaves a profoundly pessimistic impression about its capacity to ever be so.
In these circles, the United States is cast not only as flawed, but as rotten to the core and possibly beyond salvaging. We’re beginning to see some of these folks clap back at accusations of being un-American by proudly biting the bullet. Months after president Trump’s executive order 13950, which briefly banned critical race theory-inspired trainings for government employees, referring to them as “Anti-American”, one DEI outfit responded by proclaiming “Anti-racism work IS un-American, because America was founded on the very notion of white superiority.”
There’s a tweet from Chloe Valdary, an old school liberal DEI trainer, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about:
(The 1619 Project is an ongoing New York Times initiative spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which aims to reframe American history and, to an extent, redefine the essence of America around slavery and related matters.)
The point Valdary raised seems initially reminiscent of right wing “Love it or leave it” sentiments. But when I pushed through my brain’s knee-jerk attempt to dismiss it over this association, I found that the tweet wasn’t just food for thought, it was a banquet I’ve been dining on for a year and a half. Must one love their country to have a moral right to criticize it? Can criticism of one’s country be constructive if it’s not from a place of love? Can progress be born out of people who have no love in their hearts for the society they seek to improve? Indeed, can one improve something they find irredeemable?
It is possible, I suppose, for progress to occasionally arise from ideas or movements devoid of any patriotic love, but only in the incidental way that anything can lead to progress. The same could be said of natural disasters. Any occurrence, short of the extinction of humanity or the destruction of all knowledge creation, could conceivably lead to human progress. That statement is as meaningless as it is technically true. Your house burning down might, under certain imaginable circumstances, end up being the best thing that ever happened to you. Should you go ahead and set it on fire? The question remains: Is patriotism a prerequisite for progress? Yes, for all intents and purposes, it is. Of course it is.
This has more profound implications for the political left than the right. The right isn’t in power, and when they have been, they have proven themselves mostly incompetent and unambitious. This is unsurprising, as conservatives are not generally the side of big changes. And while the pendulum of political power swings back and forth as the goldfish-like electorate metronomically oscillates between each side of the stagnant duopoly, the cultural and institutional power in this country has long been dominated by the progressive left. The people most fervently crusading for progress in America are those most lacking in any detectable love of country.
It should come as no surprise that revolutionary radicalism thrives most where love of country is scarcest. If America is irreparable shit, then what’s left to “fix” or “improve”? The only remaining course of action seems to be to burn it to the ground. At which point, a better country would somehow rise from the ashes? How would that work, exactly? What are the logistics there? Be specific, please. You couldn’t elicit a more deafening silence from radicals if you ripped out their tongues. They have no answer, because hate cannot build. It can only tear down.
I spent the decade of my twenties convinced that patriotism was just another kind of tribal chauvinism. I associated patriotism with the political right. My younger self isn’t alone, and that’s a true shame. Patriotism comes coded as right wing not because the right is in fact more patriotic, but because they scream their version of it at the top of their lungs. It’s difficult to overstate just how off-putting the McPatriotism of the hard right is to the left half of the country, or really anyone outside that bubble. It’s obnoxious virtue signaling that’s heavy on pageantry and symbols but light on substance, a source of exclusion more than unity, and a tribal loyalty test rather than a moral foundation for citizenship and civic duty. It’s the right’s near-perfect analogue of the left’s social justice activism. The troop salutes and jet flyovers are their land acknowledgements. The POW/MIA flag is their “In this home, we believe…” yard sign. McPatriotism repulsed me as a young man, and it repulses me still. The right is known as the side of reaction, but the right can also incite reactions from the left, and the way they go about patriotism has unquestionably sullied the concept for many.
Blindly thinking the US is the best country in every way isn’t my idea of love; it’s worship. Love — genuine, adult love — necessitates respect. It requires honesty. Someone who trashes everything you do and thinks you’re awful isn’t your friend. Neither is the yes man who tells you you’re always right and that you can do no wrong. A friend will give it to you straight, sincerely and with compassion, out of a desire to see you better off. The “my side right or wrong”, flag-fetishizing, anthem-worshipping, “Look at how good a person I am!”, jingoistic patriotism so common on the right is not all that patriotism is. You don’t need to go about carrying a neon billboard that says you love your family in order to love them. Love of country is something you carry inside you, not something that needs to be whipped out and waved in everyone’s face.
What is patriotism? It’s seeing the common humanity in all those you share society with, however you may disagree. It’s wanting the best for the country — not just what’s best for yourself. It’s a sense of duty for the common good. It’s criticizing what’s wrong while also appreciating what’s right. It’s fighting for progress while also knowing what’s worth preserving. It’s acknowledging our failures while also recognizing how much worse things could be. To love one’s country should not be a selfish, possessive sort of love. It’s about sincerely wanting to see the country succeed — even if someone else gets the credit or glory, even if the success repudiates your own beliefs, views, or tribe. That’s the lofty ideal, at any rate. And to aspire to such an ideal easily satisfies the minimum threshold for patriotism. I don’t see how any reliable, sustainable, healthy engine of progress could run on any other fuel.