In order to be loved, a country must be lovely. It need not be flawless. In fact, no society—excepting the eternal City—is flawless. But to garner affection, it must be loveable.
The World War II generation recognized our nation’s loveliness and gave everything they had to defend it. In fact, the sacrifices of that generation are the reason we, 20th century Americans, can live as free people in a sovereign country.
The WWII generation was grateful for our nation, willing to spill their own blood on its behalf, and generally happy to get on with life within its borders once they returned. This era was perhaps the last time a citizen’s patriotism was likely to be instinctual and other citizens’ response to likely to be approving rather than cynical or ironic.
Yet even today, the loyalty and affection of many in our own generation cannot be questioned. I was 26 when the Twin Towers were imploded by the Wahhabi coward-syndicate and terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda. And the reason, at 46, that I live as a free man in a sovereign nation is the courage of our nation’s special forces and other warfighters. I, for one, am grateful that their blood runs strong.
Today, however, I fear that many Americans are instinctually anti-American. Many of the children of the 1960s, who are now quite old, have retained their opposition to even moderate strains of patriotism. Worse still, many of the so-called Millennials and Generation Z, declare our nation fundamentally unjust. They call for revolution, wishing to clear the decks and rebuild our cultural institutions and traditions from scratch.
In other words, the USA has a “patriotism problem.” Many of our fellow citizens, it seems, seem not to admire or be grateful for all the good that is to be found in America’s founding ideals and documents. They seem not to care for many of their fellow citizens, seek justice for them, or hope they will flourish. They see patriotism as simply another symptom of deplorableness.
Among everyday Americans, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is perhaps the most well-known anti-American, claiming that patriotic Americans such as Frederick Douglass share his disdain, while at the same time ignoring that Douglass honored America’s founding documents and principles while refusing to despair of our nation. For Kaepernick, as with many in our nation, the path towards progress requires dismantling our nation into something unrecognizable; under this view, patriotism impedes such progress and must be overthrown.
Such anti-Americanism demands a response. But we cannot simply be reactionaries baptizing any form of patriotism. Blood-and-soil right-wing extremism, though not prevalent, must be rejected.
Indeed, we must counter the prevailing winds of anti-Americanism while cultivating a healthy and appropriately self-critical patriotism that can maintain the cohesion necessary for our nation to function as a society. We should ascribe significance to the nation as a whole and view the United States as more than an aggregate of isolated autonomous individuals. We can thus work to protect the rights of the individual and the community. Instead of seeking merely the good of our own tribe, we must cohere around the common good of the entire nation.
If we cannot cohere around some type of agreement about the common good, our society will no longer be capable of producing in its members the character qualities necessary to maintain the greatness of our nation.
Some anti-Americans overreact to our country’s real flaws—historical or contemporary. But the fallibility of a nation is not a reason to disown it. Indeed, no society but heaven’s is without flaw. Others overreact to the sort of gross and uncritical patriotism championed by some of their fellow citizens. Yet, two wrongs do not make a right. The response to uncritical love must not be unbridled negativity.
Still other Americans—many of them elite influencers in academia, religion, and politics—engage in anti-Americanism as a rite of passage and an opportunity for virtue-signaling. The academy especially is a lush environment for national self-hatred to flourish and abound. Far too many of today’s scholars are avowed enemies of our cultural heritage, viewing themselves as prophets and the university as a breeding ground for revolutionary activism.
We must show the destructive nature of this sort of self-anointed prophecy and virtue-signaling. Anybody who thinks that people wandered in darkness, until Marx, Freud, and Foucault took us by the hand, will do nothing but injure the hearts and minds of our civilization—no matter how good his or her intention may be.
These professor-activists are corrupting the hearts and minds of our young people and, unfortunately, cannot be reasoned easily out of their anti-Americanism. For this reason, as Joseph Epstein put it, “One must leave them as they are, shimmering in the superiority of their dark view that in being born Americans they were given a frightfully raw deal, while trying to win over the young who do not have locked-in views.” Indeed, we must focus our efforts on the younger generation, the students of our prophet-activist-professors.
What must we tell the younger generations?
We must say that, yes, the United States could have been founded in a way more consistent with its own high ideals of justice, equality, and freedom for all. That must be recognized. Clearly, our nation could do better than it does. Who would argue with the fact that our country possesses real flaws and shortcomings? No society short of heaven exists without blemish.
But no, these flaws and shortcomings do not justify our adoption of the sort of self-loathing that today exists among many of our nation’s elite and the activists of the Left. Instead, we must cultivate a robust but sufficiently critical patriotism that unites around the good that is found in our founding ideals and documents, around the beauty that is in our nation’s diverse peoples, so that we can continue to live as free people in a sovereign nation under which citizens can pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
There is nothing wrong—and there is everything right—about having a properly ordered love for this particular nation—the United States—to whom God has entrusted us with citizenship. Our yes, of course, is qualified; not only should we love our nation enough to admire and preserve the good in it, but also enough to resist and stand guard against whatever injustices and incivilities we find within our borders.
A significant challenge for our nation, therefore, is to cultivate in the younger generations a proper admiration for our nation, including appreciation not only for its founding ideals and forebears but also the exemplary persons and communities that exist in our country today. Before we start pulling specks out of our forebear’s eyes, we contemporary Americans need to remove some planks from our own. We must love our neighbors and our God by embracing the solid foundation upon which our nation is built, while sober-mindedly working to shore up where it is weak.
Bruce Riley Ashford is senior fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre and author of Letters to an American Christian.