America’s birthday: On loving what we can’t stand

by David Suissa
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As we celebrate July 4 this year, it’s a good time to revel in the mess of this laboratory of liberty.

(JNS) While waiting at the bar at a July Fourth party the other night, I asked two fellow attendees how they felt about America. “Do you love this country?” I asked. They made a slight grimace, as if to suggest it was not a pleasant question. They brought up a few things that distressed them, such as recent Supreme Court decisions. The three of us then shared things that drive us nuts about these divided United States.

Tellingly, the question of loving the country was never answered, and I think I may know why. We tend to associate love with agreement. If I’m in agreement with your views, I’m more likely to love you. Similarly, if I’m in agreement with the direction of the country, I’m more likely to love it.

This kind of like-minded love may be OK with choosing friends, but it can be corrosive when it comes to a country. For one thing, disagreement is a slippery slope that easily can lead to animosity. Our country is brimming with animosity these days, animosity toward ideologies, policies and people we can’t stand. Indeed, we can’t imagine loving a country so full of things we can’t stand. Patriotism itself has become this outdated notion that belongs only to fascists, the uneducated and the morally obtuse.

But let’s pull back: Should we even care about patriotism? Why trouble ourselves with a nebulous idea like love of country when there are so many political battles to fight and problems to fix?

Personally, I do care, because I tend to see love as a fundamental, life-giving force, both in relationships and with one’s country. Maybe because I was born in the Third World, I find it difficult to obliterate from my mind a love for America. Even when I’m infuriated at the direction of the country, I can’t seem to forget the bigger picture of what America represents for millions around the world.

“Immigrants believe in the American story about freedom and self-governance. In fact, nobody believes harder than we do,” Lipton Mathews writes in “Intellectual Takeout.”

“The migrants at the border right now are there because they acted on the belief that we are all born with a God-given right to self-determination. They were willing to risk everything on their belief in liberty, on their belief in the kind of freedom you fight for.”

When we’re mired in the chaos and shifting emotions of the day-to-day, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. It’s hard to appreciate what we have when we haven’t seen alternatives. As Mathews writes, “Human beings who have known freedom their whole lives cannot fully appreciate it — in the same way that fish cannot really appreciate water.”

One reason it’s so hard to appreciate the “bigger picture” of America is that free societies tend to be excessively messy. Dictatorships are run by control freaks; democracies are more like messy closets.

“If you like everything to be controlled and neat and organized, you’d never pick democracy as your form of government,” the late consultant Alison Davis wrote. “That’s because it involves everyone who wants to participate. And voters, like all human beings, are messy. Some are new, some are experienced, some are rational, some are emotional. As a result, anything can happen.”

The problem, of course, is that if you follow the news, the mess is pretty much all you see. And if you go by the mess, you’ll be justified in concluding that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. Who wants to love anything that’s going to hell in a handbasket?

My hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to love such a messy country. When he fought for the rights of blacks, he wasn’t rejecting America but honoring its founding ideals and its Declaration of Independence. He was urging America to be what it promised to be. He had faith that the country of Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln would cash his “promissory check” and bring more justice to his nation.

He couldn’t stand the injustice that he fought so hard to alleviate, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t stand his country. “You’re better than this” was his ultimate message to his fellow Americans; his deepest expression of love.

“My love of America—of the American idea—is unwavering,” Darren Walker wrote last year in The New York Times. “This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving.”

As we celebrate July 4th this year, it’s a good time to revel in the mess of this laboratory of liberty. Even when we can’t stand it, there’s plenty in this laboratory that is worth loving, and much of the world knows it.

Happy Fourth.

Originally published by the Jewish Journal.


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