American progressives can’t ever match conservatives in displays of febrile patriotism, and for good reason. What Jesus told his followers about prayer is also good advice about loving a country: “Thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.”
Moreover, anyone who’s spent five minutes thinking about human history knows how dangerously volatile nationalism is. This is especially important to keep in mind in a country that has used nuclear weapons and pondered whether to drop tungsten rods on our enemies from orbit.
Nonetheless, I believe it behooves all of us to consider and celebrate what is resplendent about the United States of America.
First, if you don’t do so, you wear blinders that prevent you from seeing a giant chunk of reality. In Catholic theology most souls are of middling virtue — but the ones which are not are generally not good or evil alone but both at once. As St. Augustine put it, “my two wills, one old and the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contend within me.” The same goes for countries: If they’re not in the middle of the bell curve they often occupy both ends simultaneously. That is definitely the United States.
Second, one of America’s most beautiful attributes is that we have freedom and resources that our fellow malcontents in many other countries could only dream of. Pretending that we don’t have this wiggle room is — particularly for white activists — to show ourselves to be distastefully spoiled.
Third, being conscious of this country’s upside is the only way we’ll ever be able to communicate with anyone outside the minute lefty archipelago. The lived experience of millions of Americans has been that it’s superior to where their families once came from. Trying to convince them that it’s uniformly appalling is like trying to convince them that they have three arms. That’s not going to work.
Finally, it’s critical for our own psychological wellbeing. Much about America’s past has been hideous and much about the present is grim. But keeping that going as an endless interior monologue is a recipe for stasis and failure. Conversely, an appreciation of the glorious parts of the U.S. is motivation to protect and expand them. The right loves to accusingly demand, “Do you love this country?” We need the confidence to give the correct answer, which is “I love the parts you’re trying to destroy.”
So for July 4, I’ve made a list of what’s most deeply meaningful to me about America.
People Have Rights, Not the Government
For most of the time in most places, societies believed that the natural order was to have a king who had the final word about everything. The Declaration of Independence was one of the first attempts to flip that on its head, and declare that individual people come first and governments derive their power “from the consent of the governed.”
It’s easy to forget the momentousness of this statement in an era when Fortune 500 companies complain that governmental tyranny prevents them from putting arsenic in their line of baby food. But it was a giant step forward, and one of the best parts about being an American is an instinctive understanding of the zaniness of monarchies. For instance, Great Britain pays an old lady from some German family to live in a gigantic house, and if you have dinner there you have to immediately stop eating when she does.
The Declaration of Independence resonated so deeply with universal human aspirations that it was copied by many other rebellions. Ho Chi Minh used parts of it verbatim in 1945 in a declaration of independence for Vietnam. We were so moved by this that the Eisenhower administration offered France two nuclear bombs to drop on Dien Bien Phu.
Separation of Church and State
Not only did most places have kings in 1776, it was usually accepted that these kings had been appointed by god. This meant that you couldn’t question the king’s decisions even when large holes had been eaten in his brain by syphilis.
So establishing a wall between religion and government in the Bill of Rights was deeply radical and positive. The corporate right has long understood how this levels society, which is why they’ve quietly supported efforts to tear it down and retcon U.S. history to make the founding fathers fervent Christians.
Anyone From Anywhere
In most places at most times, nationality has depended on blood and soil. For instance, Korean-Japanese whose families have been there for 100 years are still referred to as zainichi — which literally means “staying in Japan,” presumably temporarily. But in theory and to a large degree in fact, anyone can come to the U.S. from anywhere, and when they take the oath of citizenship they become as American as everyone else.
The Nazis used to call the U.S. a mongrel nation. They were absolutely right; it’s fantastic and the source of our hybrid vigor.
We’re So Rich
The U.S. right likes to tout our enormous wealth as a sign of our success. In reality, it signifies a humiliating failure of our economic system, even leaving aside our stunning levels of inequality.
We have advantages possessed by no other country in history. We’re gigantic, in the temperate zone, overflowing with natural resources, and with neighbors so weak we generally forget that they’re there. Yet Europe and Japan are about as rich as we are, despite having few of these assets and regularly destroying themselves in catastrophic wars. We should have twice as much money as they do.
Nevertheless, by any reasonable standard the U.S. is an incredibly wealthy place, as wealthy as any country needs to be to maximize human happiness. If we get our act together to fight, we could use our riches to do amazing things.
For instance, much of our gains in economic productivity over the past 40 years have gone into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires. The median household income in the U.S. now is about $56,500. If flight attendants and firemen had gotten their share of economic growth, they would be making over $70,000. Alternatively — and even more enticingly — if we’d had the power to take our increased productivity in time off regular people could be making their current salaries while only working about 30 hours per week.
Who knows what we’d do with that kind of extra time for ourselves, but it’s thrilling to contemplate. If current trends continued there would certainly be a lot of podcasts; once we’re only working 15 hours a week and the ratio of podcasts to podcast listeners passes 1:1, we’ll have to invent robots to rate and review them on iTunes.
African American and Secular Jewish Culture
I’m not black and, despite the enthusiastic (((feedback))) I receive from the alt-right, I’m also not Jewish. I’m a baptized Episcopalian, a Mischling second degree, and a practicing nothing. But to me, looking at black culture and Jewish culture in America from the periphery, they seem to be humanity’s two premiere achievements.
I used to think that William Faulkner’s claim that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail” was hokey and overoptimistic. But the history of African Americans is evidence he knew what he was talking about.
Two hundred fifty years of kidnapping, murder, rape and chattel slavery; “freedom” followed by 100 years of treatment that was slavery-adjacent; a 10-year window when change seemed possible; and then 40 years of mass incarceration that is intermittent reenslavement. It’s incredible African Americans haven’t collapsed in exhaustion, or simply perished.
Instead, faced with a 1,000-foot high wall of hate, they’ve dug tunnels under it, floated over it waving from hot air balloons, and built transporters to dematerialize and then rematerialize on the other side, all to the bafflement and fury of much of white America. We understand violence and in fact rejoice when faced with it, because we know how to respond in kind a hundred times over. What we can’t understand is black America’s unending eruption of invention — in politics, music, literature, sports, Twitter, general stylishness, and a thousand other areas — that reverberates around the world. It’s set a standard of wisdom and humanity for everyone else on earth to aim for.
The accomplishments of secular Jewish culture in America have been similar, although modulated differently.
All religions have the same essential precepts, and most religions ignore them in practice. Judaism stands out for sometimes taking them seriously. Both the Torah and Old Testament instruct us that “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Only Judaism builds a holiday around this admonition, and sends participants out into the world believing that maybe those words mean what they say.
Likewise, I can’t help but love an ethical tradition that requires kids to ask questions. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it, “To be a Jewish child is to learn how to question.” I.I. Rabi, an American Nobel Prize-winning physicist, said he became a scientist because when he came home from school each day his mother would ask him not what he’d learned, but whether he’d asked a good question. Polls have shown that American Jews value “thinking for oneself” as the most critical quality to encourage in children.
The collision of this perspective with the openness of American culture has exploded in every direction. It’s impossible to imagine how different, and how much worse, the U.S. would be without the influence of secular Judaism.
Then there’s what is, for me, the dazzling summit of African American and Jewish culture: the collaborative creation of American comedy.
Comedy of the powerful tends to take this structure: “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” You can see this clearly in Monty Python, whose main five performers went to Oxford and Cambridge. Wouldn’t it be funny if a pet store owner refused to acknowledge a parrot he’d just sold to a customer had died? Wouldn’t it be funny if the head of a mountaineering expedition had double vision?
But the comedy of the powerless usually says something else: “Isn’t it funny that…” The powerless don’t need to invent surrealistically absurd situations, they live them. So a Chris Rock joke is: Isn’t it funny that that train’s never late?
And the comedy of reality will always be superior to the comedy of imagination, no matter how well executed. That’s why American comedy, created by African Americans and Jews (with an assist from Irish Catholics) is the current reigning world champion.
Of course, I understand that the individual humans involved in all this did not do so as a hobby or to make America better, but to survive in the face of monstrous cruelty. Billie Holiday would have traded “Strange Fruit” for an end to lynchings. Our goal should be to make this country so good that we end up with a bland, Swiss-like pudding of a culture.
I can’t honestly claim I like baseball that much. But all lists like this by liberals seem to include it, so I feel peer pressure to do so too. You’re also supposed to be super into jazz.
So that’s why I love America. I encourage you to think about it yourself today in between the cookout, beach, and fireworks. Writing it down made me feel much better about being alive right here right now, and it could do the same for you.