love of… what?
One of the most tired accusations is that so-and-so “blames America first,” which in a more sane world would be understood as taking responsibility for one’s own flaws. One would think that a more damning charge would be to say that someone never blames America, and so refuses to take responsibility for anything done in her, our, name, but even this use of the word blame is misguided.
Once again, I find this discussion demonstrates how damaging the relativism we reserve for foreign policy discussion is. (I know, I know– I’m a one trick pony. But she’s a good horse, so why not ride?) As I’ve said before, the basic rhetorical turn in American foreign policy discussion is to never permit critics of America to ask, “Is America moral?” but always to cajole them to ask “Is America more or less moral than X?” X, usually, being an international actor of such obvious misbehavior that the answer to the question can’t help but be “yes”. As I have likewise said before, the question doesn’t interest me, at all. I just don’t think that morality is a concept that makes sense in relative measure. I also think a genuine impediment to our having a moral and pragmatic understanding of foreign policy is that so many people are convinced that we have to use entirely different evaluative criteria for what is right or beneficial.
You’ve heard that from me before, if you’ve read me on this topic. But what I also want to say, partly in response to Daniel’s post, is that it also goes the other way. The question of whether Britain or France or Japan or Switzerland or Canada or wherever is more moral than the United States doesn’t particularly interest me. I think that we can look for inspiration from other countries, but simply saying that we suffer compared to Enlightened Country X fails for just the same reason as just saying that we are better than Bad Actor X: such statements tend to point us to no meaningful corrective action. Moral statements, I think, should be corrective statements; we make them primarily in the desire to create positive change. What’s more, I think that there is some notion out there that saying “this is something wrong with our country” amounts to declaring the desire to join some other country. That isn’t the case. Where could one go? Country is like family. Criticism and anger take place, and should, in a context where no one is going to up and leave in frustration. And for that reason, as it is with family, criticism of country should be empowered: once you have established that everyone involved is in it for the long run, you are free to stop being polite and to confront the deep, deep issues.
And, of course, there isn’t Enlightened Country X. All of the countries I mentioned have boxes of bad deeds in their present and the past. There are aspects of those country’s governments that I would like the United States to adopt, but that doesn’t mean that I’m naive to the very many failings of those or other countries. Those countries are not my country. I’m interested in their behavior, particularly as the United States influences and changes it, but my responsibility extends only that far, as far as we are responsible for their actions. That’s another reason why I find the “blame America first” line so, well, besides the point. Sure, I blame America first. I blame America second, third and fourth too, not because of some great righteousness in America’s peers but because my responsibility to this democracy means that I am compelled to criticize it. Similarly, when people say that the United States is the most benevolent and tolerant great power in the history of the world, they may be right. I’m not sure, I’m not historian enough to judge. But it certainly could be the case. That just isn’t sufficient, if reaching that position doesn’t mean that this country comports itself in a righteous way, according to simple moral codes. It’s true, I may be holding America to impossible standards. But then we’re getting to the question of who, exactly, wants the best for it.
I don’t know. What most people take to be the elementary question of patriotism– do you love your country?– has always seemed just bizarre, to me, just a deeply strange thing to ask. I think for many of us, there’s lots of elements of American culture and politics that we feel perfectly comfortable with, and then there are conventions that make us feel completetly alien to our own country. That’s what the question of loving your country brings out in me. To me, it’s like asking me “do you love yourself?” Who knows? And what good would it do me if I did? It’s a non sequitur. It’s frequently functionally unanswearable, and if you could answer it, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business. Questions about love for country, I think, are places where we desperately need the influence of genuine conservative values: love for country is not a subject that should be the business of government, society or culture.