A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I took exception—humorously, I thought—to the popular American conceit of describing ours as the “greatest nation on Earth” (I proposed Bhutan as a worthier claimant to that title, though I had also toyed with arguing the case for Norway, New Zealand, or Fiji). It may seem strange to object to a phrase that on most occasions probably has only the force of affectionate hyperbole. And, it seems, a few readers were displeased that I had done so. One fellow named Mr. Tuberculosis (or so I deduce from his suggestive online sobriquet “TB”) even suggested I was an ingrate, and implied that I was lacking in a proper appreciation of my country’s enormous contributions to the world at large (which I may well be, come to think of it).
But, in my defense, I think anyone who honestly considers the matter would have to acknowledge that many Americans often use the phrase with a degree of deep conviction that allows little room for irony, less room for the appreciation of the ways in which other cultures are sometimes vastly superior to our own, and almost no room for a proper grasp of the severe limitations of our way of life. Or such is my impression, at any rate. I have to admit, though, I wrote in a state of annoyance, having a few days earlier witnessed a conservative commentator on television using the phrase as a kind of bludgeon with which to abuse a guest on his program.
Whatever the case, I suppose I shouldn’t think it particularly odd that a great many Americans earnestly believe their country to be not only a very fine place indeed, but the very epitome of what any rightly ordered society should be. The United States was, after all, the first nation born out of an ideology (which is not to say it was not born also out of practical economic and political impulses). From the first, even before the Articles of Confederation or the US Constitution had been drafted, even before the War of Independence had been won, we had already issued a Declaration proclaiming to the world what the proper relation should be between any people and its government, and what liberties had been conferred upon all persons by nature and nature’s God; and it is with the date of the Declaration—not the date of the first constitutional convention—that we mark the beginning of our country.
Combine the heady idealism of the age of the “Rights of Man” with the North American Puritan conviction that a new spiritual dispensation had begun with the establishment of the protestant colonies, filter the mixture through the odd sensibility of our indigenous religion (Christian Gnosticism), and naturally what results is a kind of evangelical utopianism, an invincible sense of America’s special providential importance, a pure-hearted desire to convert the world to our unique vision of a humanity set free from sin by the twin bounties of limitless divine grace and inexhaustible consumer choices. If nothing else, no other people on earth seems so buoyantly free of any morbid fixation on its failures, historical or cultural, or so irrepressibly certain that the past is only prologue to a glorious future (if we will but keep the faith).
If it seems that I am being sarcastic here, I assure you that is not my intention. I love my country quite sincerely, as it happens. And while I cannot buy into the doctrine of “American exceptionalism,” I am more than willing to acknowledge everything I think truly exceptional about the United States. In fact, I flatter myself that in many cases I feel a deep adoration towards aspects of America that far too many Americans fail to appreciate with anything like the devotion they deserve.
Not that I want to overlook the obvious advantages to being an American citizen. I quite like the Bill of Rights, for instance; I like being able to speak my mind freely—whether I have anything worth saying or not—without fear of harassment from the authorities, as one cannot do in, for instance, modern Britain or Canada (which, if you have not heard of it, is a country lying just beyond our northern border). And both the idea and the reality of a kind of “trans-national nationality”—of a civil and legal order whose identity has never been a matter of blood and soil, of racial purity or mythical autochthony—inspire a deep admiration in me.
But love of country is most ennobling, I think, when it is most concrete, and when it rises up out local loyalties, particular experiences, and natural customs. Otherwise, it has only the quality of appreciation, or even of reverence, but not of the profoundest emotional attachment. So, well before my gratitude for the rule of law and the constitutional limit on government powers, come a number of more personal fidelities: my love of baseball, Ella Fitzgerald (especially the recordings done for Verve), and the voice of Renée Fleming, for instance. Also Maryland crab cakes (which are impossible to find anywhere but in Maryland), Maryland soft-shell crabs, Maryland crab bisque, Maryland oyster stew, Maryland oyster pie, Chesapeake oysters on the shell, and Chesapeake rockfish (very good when stuffed with crab or served with fresh oysters).
The great American composers of the twentieth century, too: Walter Piston, William Schuman, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, David Diamond, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, and so on (especially, just at present, Piston). And the horses of Maryland and Kentucky (particularly Maryland). Louis Armstrong. Baseball again, and Ella, and Renée Fleming. Sinatra’s Capitol years. Jousting (the state sport of Maryland).
Of course, I should not neglect to mention Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis (up to a point). Or the songs of Harold Arlen (America’s greatest songwriter), Cole Porter, and the Gershwins; also the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. And Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy Rushing also. Renée Fleming and baseball. The films of John Ford (above all) and of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Preston Sturges. The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bogart, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner (let me pause on that last one for a moment, in order to heave a deep sigh).
The memory of Brooks Robinson lunging madly at a fair ball veering out of reach into foul territory, gloving it, and somehow throwing across the diamond in time; or of Paul Blair, playing so shallow he could almost turn a double play at second, still running down a deep line drive over his head and catching it on the warning track; and of Frank Robinson hitting a home run with a violence that made one wonder whether the ball had once insulted his mother.
Our marvelous landscapes, of course: the deep deciduous forests of the Appalachians, the forever changing colors of the Chesapeake Bay, the Western mountains and plains and deserts, and all the rest. And there are few sights in nature as glorious as Autumn in North America, especially the Northeast. The keening of coyotes at night, the sweet terse trill of the Baltimore Oriole, the belling of Eastern tree frogs, that uncanny noise the black bear who lives in the culvert behind my house makes. And the greatest of our cities: New Orleans, Charleston, and Manhattan. The sight of the Chrysler Building bathed in crepuscular scarlet. And all the Civil War battlefields.
Our greatest nineteenth century writers, too, of course: Melville, Hawthorne, William James (and occasionally Henry), Thoreau, Emerson, Henry Adams, Crane, Bierce, Twain, and Jones Very (though I confess I am a heretic when it comes to Dickinson, Whitman, and Poe). Our best modern poets: Stevens, Frost, and Wilbur, and sometimes Pound and Lowell. The Adventures of Augie March, the prose of John Updike (though, strangely enough, not the actual novels in which it is found, and certainly none of those god-awful, dismally anerotic sex scenes). Most of Fitzgerald, a little of the very early Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and all of Nabokov’s American books before Ada.
“Sophisticated Lady” (the greatest popular song ever written), “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, and “I Shall Be Released” (I would include “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but it was actually written by a Canadian). The recordings of Yo-Yo Ma and Renée Fleming. Southern courtesy, Northeastern candor, Western independence, and Texans (whatever the hell they are). And so on.
Obviously, the list could continue indefinitely. (I hope I remembered to mention baseball and Ella, however. And Renée Fleming, of course.)
Whether, though, everyone would find this adequate or not, I cannot say. Some might still complain that even the most comprehensive and adoring enumeration of the particularities of America still does not amount to a confession of faith in America as a cause, or America as the great historical exception or new human beginning, or America as the ideal destiny of humankind. And indeed it does not. But it is a genuine expression of great love, nonetheless.
And, I would argue, it has the true shape of all love that is rightly ordered. All true charity—love, that is, purged of selfishness and egoism—begins in attachment to what is most intimate and familiar. This is where the soul acquires its first and indispensable tutelage in love, and from which it then ventures out to embrace ever more of reality without forsaking its first loyalty, extending the circle of its sympathy by analogy to its own primordial affections. It is the mirror image, so to speak, of the bonum diffusivum sui, the divine eros (to use the phrase of Dionysius the Areopagite) that proceeds out from itself to give all things freely, and to draw all things back to itself.
The proper love of country, it seems to me, should have the form of this egressus and regressus: a deep attachment to what is near at hand that is still free from any presumptuous belief in the lesser value of things that are far away, and that is therefore able to grow beyond the local towards the universal, beyond the nation to a larger culture, beyond that to other cultures, and ideally towards the embrace of all humanity and all of creation. That is, at any rate, the only kind of patriotism that I fully understand, and that I find it possible to see as a spiritual virtue. And, I may be wrong, but it seems to me also to be a patriotism that, of its nature, should express itself with a certain seemly humility, and an effortless generosity.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press).