In the Winter 2019 issue of Modern Age, there’s a review essay (not online) of Keith Gessen’s latest novel, A Terrible Country. Gessen, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, writes about Andrei, an adult child of emigres returning to live in Russia. Here’s a passage from Timothy Crimmins’ review:
Andrei is also drawn to socialism out of what can only be described as cultural conservatism. The Russian liberals who oppose the Putin regime are repulsively jaded and unpatriotic. “It turned out they hated Russia,” Andrei discovers. “They sort of lived here, but they also sort of lived somewhere else. None of them watched Russian TV.” They make Andrei think of Gershom Scholem’s charge against Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book may have been “learned and acute,” but it was missing ahavat Israel — “‘a love of Israel,’ a love for her people.” This line of thought culminates in a dinner party, hilariously orchestrated by Gessen, during which Andrei erupts at the table, rebuking the liberals seated around him. “Russia is sick,” he tells them. “When someone is sick, they do not need criticism. They need help.” Andrei senses he is quoting somebody, but he can’t recall whom. He is mortified when someone points out that those words are Putin’s.
This is, I think, a good description of how a certain kind of cosmopolitan liberal thinks about America. They seem to hate actually existing America. But I have to admit that it strikes close to home for me too. Let me explain.
This paragraph made me wonder about whether or not I have “a love for America” in the sense meant here. It’s a difficult question to get one’s arms around, at least for me. I am extremely allergic to the forced cheerfulness of canned patriotism, which is political kitsch. I hate #MAGA. On the other hand, in what sense do I love America? It’s a question we should all ask ourselves.
What makes it hard to answer is that most of us don’t really know anything else. Even though I’ve traveled abroad a lot, I don’t really “know” any other way of life. I really enjoy traveling and meeting new people, and seeing how they live, and heaven knows there are aspects of European life that I prefer to the way we do it here. But I am always glad to come home, for only one reason: because it is home.
The definition of patriotism that resonates with me is the chorus from the Little Steven (Van Zandt) song from the early 1980s, “I Am A Patriot”:
I am a patriot, and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family, the people who understand me
I’ve got nowhere else to go
That’s about it, for me. It’s funny, because I have more “patriotic” feelings about the American South, and about Louisiana, than I do about America. Why? Because I’ve spent my life in this country, and it makes emotional sense for me to grasp the particularism of life in the South, and in Louisiana, as contraposed to the life I’ve known outside the South (where I spent 13 years, in various places). I simply don’t have the experience of feeling what that’s like from the outside of America herself.
P.J. O’Rourke captures my sense of patriotism in this passage from his classic 1982 Harper’s essay, “Ship Of Fools,” his recollection of a “peace cruise” up the Volga River in the Soviet Union, with a bunch of American leftists. In this passage, P.J. is listening to Nick, one of the Americans, give a lecture about how America was responsible for the arms race. The “ally” P.J. refers to is a Russian veteran of World War II that he’d met on one of the stops, and with whom he had shared vodka toasts to the US-Russian anti-Hitler alliance. Here’s how P.J. reacted aboard the cruise ship to the American leftist’s lecture:
What he was saying wasn’t wrong, at least not in the factual citations he made. But suddenly and quite against my will I was angry. To stand in front of strangers and run your country, my country, down — I didn’t care if what Nick said was generally true. I didn’t care if what he said was wholly, specifically, and exactly true in every detail. I haven’t been that mad in years. I had to leave, go below. I was ashamed of the man. And it occurred to me that I would have been ashamed if he were Russian and we were on the Mississippi. That big fellow with the medals down his suit coat, my ally, he wouldn’t have done such a thing on the Delta Queen.
But here’s the thing, and I have to be honest about this: I don’t watch American TV, in the sense Keith Gessen means in his novel’s remark about how the unpatriotic liberals don’t watch Russian TV. That is to say, I don’t participate in the main rituals of American popular culture. I don’t want to do that. I think a lot of it is stupid and degrading, and I want no part of it. But if I don’t share in the popular culture, how can I love America? I’m serious. I’ve never thought of it quite like that.
Though I expect to live the rest of my life here, and die here, I feel increasingly alienated from my own country. It’s a miserable feeling. Last night, direct-messaging with a Millennial friend who lives in a crackpot blue state, I read these words from him:
“I love this country. The country I grew up in. It’s going, gone.”
I think so too. You regular readers know why I think this — you read my stuff. I know that some liberal readers will say, “You just can’t stand that white males aren’t in control anymore.” That’s idiotic, and I won’t dignify it by posting those kinds of comments. Watch the great new Amazon Prime documentary Generation Wealth, and you’ll understand a lot of where I’m coming from with this.
Look, I want to be the kind of American who wants to help my country more than criticize it — this, though I believe that no one helps this or any country more than the honest critic! I want to criticize constructively, from a place of love, but in truth, I don’t know that I do that. Maybe I do, and I just can’t see it, but it’s worth thinking about. For you too.
I do not hate America, not in the least. But just as the absence of war is not peace, the absence of hate is not love.
I need to ponder this. One of the happiest feelings I ever get is when I’m coming back to the US from abroad, and the officer at passport control stamps my documents, and says, “Welcome home.” I know that I can go out into the airport and get a big-ass diet Coke, with lots of ice, and hear the voices of people who talk like me. It’s a very small thing, but little things like that, they’re everything. “Because my country is all I know.”
When I first moved out of the South, to Washington DC (which, strangely, non-Southerners tend to think of as the South), nothing made me happier than to gather in a bar or at a party with other Southern expats and talk about the South. Every one of us had plenty to complain about concerning our homeland, and boy, did we complain. The racism, the backwardness, the heat, the weight of family, and so forth. But mostly, we told stories about life back home, and even our mockery was suffused with sweetness and care. Yankees — which is what we call all non-Southern Americans, affectionately these days — were always amazed and delighted by these stories. They sometimes figured we were making this stuff up. We weren’t. We had something special. It was our country, and it’s what we knew.
Robert E. Lee was a Southerner. So was Martin Luther King Jr. Eugene Debs was an American. So was Whittaker Chambers. Angela Davis? American. So too Phyllis Schlafly. All of them were part of all of us, makers of our own perspective. There’s something sentimental in me that wants to claim them all. When I look at a Confederate statue, I don’t think, “I am so offended by this monument to a man who fought for slavery that I believe it should be erased from public memory.” I think, “You poor bastard, you thought you were fighting for what was right and honorable, but you were blind. You were my ancestor. You are part of me — your story is a chapter in our story — and I am blind like you were, I just don’t know it yet.”
Last night, I was standing in line at a Starbucks inside a supermarket. The man in front of me was a young immigrant from Central America, probably in his mid-20s. He was dressed shabbily. His wife was standing next to him, paying the cashier. He held their daughter, who looked to be about two, and who had Down syndrome. I thought: if they were middle-class Americans born and raised here, they probably would have aborted that beautiful little girl. But they are poor immigrants, and they welcomed her into their family. I know nothing about that couple and their daughter, but I do know that they are a credit to America. I wish I had had the presence of mind to pay for their coffee. Like I said, I’m sentimental like that.
I wonder: if I ever lived in France, or Italy, or Spain, if I would get together with fellow American expatriates and talk this way about the country we left behind. I mean, I wonder if I love America in the same way I loved (and still love) the American South. Probably so; it took leaving the South, about which I bitched endlessly as a college student and recent college graduate, for me to realize how deeply Southern I really am, and to embrace that as a gift.
But how can I have that epiphany as an American who lives in America? I felt it overwhelmingly on 9/11, and immediately afterward, but I’ve come to deeply mistrust that sense, given how it was manipulated by our political leadership. What’s it like for you?
(I would like this to be a thread on which we shared stories, not yelled at each other.)