Small nations look outward. I was born in Jamaica—remain a Jamaican citizen, for that matter—and we Jamaicans learned early that history was something that mainly happened elsewhere. We knew that Jamaica was, at best, peripheral to the social and political developments that defined the age.
This is not to say we lacked national self-confidence. Jamaican patriotism is deep and unassailable. I grew up intensely proud of the sly, insouciant, swaggering brilliance for which we credited ourselves and which we thought the envy of the world.
But as much as we relished the thought of being the mischievous and clever trickster on the world-historical stage, we knew our nation was not an actor of any real consequence. That delusion was impossible while we lived in the shadow of the most consequential nation the world has ever seen.
We looked out toward the United States with equal parts spiteful contempt and base infatuation. My schoolbooks confirmed the popular image of the United States as a bullying Babylon filled with fat idiots—but, my, how Babylon could seduce.
When we were children, the United States was the Promised Land, possibly mythical, where the streets were paved with refined sugar and you could be rude to your parents. For adolescent males, caught in a storm of hormones, it was an enlightened kingdom of beautiful cars, intoxicatingly aggressive music, and women fully liberated from anything resembling self-respect. I felt the pull of America, that vast shopping mall with living space, whenever I longed to become an imperial self, glutting various desires in blissful freedom from all non-contractual obligations.
Of course, Jamaicans were often drawn to America for better reasons than this. There is no denying that superior educational and employment opportunities attracted many ordinary, decent people legitimately seeking to improve their lot in life.
But I can say with some confidence that no Jamaican explaining his decision to migrate to the United States would ever invoke the grand ideals that are staples of patriotic rhetoric. America-the-Idea simply did not move us. Perhaps this attitude manifests cynicism or a deep-seated contempt for lofty abstractions that we inherited from the British. In any case, I was representative in finding American speeches about liberty and justice unhelpfully vague, and in resenting the noisy self-importance of those who made them.
My casual anti-Americanism was tested, however, when, at age sixteen, I fled to a boarding school in Massachusetts. Briefly besotted with the idea of becoming a jaunty leftwing prose stylist, I had intended to write a book of essays, prospectively titled Empyre, ridiculing American culture, condemning various acts of injustice and rank hypocrisy, and joyfully predicting a catastrophic end to American hegemony (hence the pyre). And naturally I would have sold my right arm for a green card.
A single year cured this fatuity. For one thing, my blanket contempt for Americans couldn’t survive acquaintance with the talented and genuinely good people I found there. For another, the deeper my explorations of ethics, history, and political philosophy went, the more I found real content in those American abstractions. Against my will, I came to appreciate the grandeur of this experiment in ordered liberty.
Let me insist that my story is no simple tale of conversion. Though affection and gratitude replaced hostility, I developed at least one criticism of America that I have never abandoned: American patriotism is almost impossible to distinguish from chauvinism, and this fact rightly irritates otherwise sympathetic foreigners.
American greatness is undeniable—securing peace, power, and plenty on this scale is a staggering achievement. But, not content to leave it there, many self-consciously patriotic Americans must declare this a universal nation that has established a new order for the ages. Hopped-up on Enlightenment ambitions, this motley crew of immigrants has become convinced that it forms a representative people, and it has made this conviction the basis of a quasi-religion.
When I tell people that I love the United States and have no desire to leave, but dislike the mantra of a shining city on a hill, they look at me like a Satanist at the church picnic. Everyone tends to believe in the superiority of his own ways, but America’s liberal-democratic universalism raises this tendency to an article of faith.
The rambunctious anti-Federalist Luther Martin saw and attacked this in the early days of the republic: “I feel no Quixotic desire of proselytizing the world to the republic system; no hatred or contempt for those who live under governments of a different form; nor do I think the man, who believes a republican government the best adapted for all nations, without regard to their habits or manners, and who would wish to compel its adoption in all times and in all countries, a whit more wise or less cruel, than the tyrant, who took into his head the barbarous whim, by stretching or lopping every individual who came in his way, to reduce them all to the standard of the same bedstead.”
Without question, there are important human goods (especially material ones) that the United States provides more abundantly than any nation on earth, but to make too much of these goods is to misunderstand the nature of human flourishing. Many of my friends in high school and college assumed that what Americans most valued—socially, politically, or economically—was always in itself most valuable. Of course nobody would say that America contains everything of value. But sometimes Americans do seem to think that the absorbent power of democratic capitalism allows the nation to incorporate whatever is really any good about anyplace else. Why would anyone want the thickness of Indian society, when, even without it, they could have Indian engineers, saris, and samosas?
The dogma of American superiority makes many of its citizens defensive and humorless when faced with serious national failings, past or present. A too-earnest plea of extenuating circumstances or a rancorous tu quoque is generally judged sufficient, but sometimes the defense becomes more elaborate. Once in American history class, for instance, I noted the irony that the British abolished slavery before their rebellious colonies did (and without an orgy of bloodshed). In reply, someone suggested that I had ignored a counterbalancing fact: British abolitionists couldn’t invoke the natural-rights language of the Declaration of Independence.
In other words, what America officially aspires to be trumps what it demonstrably is. As Barack Obama said when he won the 2008 election, “That is the true genius of America—that America can change. Our union can be perfected.” Unlike, apparently, France, England, or Sweden.
The fervor of the republican faith naturally tends to backfire in the form of dramatic apostasies—which is why America has always produced some of the world’s fiercest anti-Americans. As the historian Walter McDougall once remarked, America is “not a lie, but a disappointment.”
But these criticisms should not obscure the fact that I feel unshakable loyalty and intense love for this country. I love the United States because I agree with Richard John Neuhaus that, on balance, considering all the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world. I am convinced that the glee many feel at the prospect of America’s fall is shortsighted idiocy.
I love this nation because I have found America’s stereotypical “spirit of enterprise” to be a reality. Americans have an incomparably vivid sense of the possibilities of human life. Their missionary zeal is admirable and contagious. It is a spirit born of liberty (in the wholly prosaic sense of freedom from external constraint), of which Americans have more than any other people on earth. This liberty is not an absolute value, and it too often becomes a pointless hedonism. But who can deny that this liberty-loving society has produced magnificent deeds and people that could have come from nowhere else?
I love this nation because it contains the antidote to the worst things about itself. America bubbles and overflows with the acids of modernity. But though it exports worthless plastic, pornography, abortion, and a puerile individualism, America also has the most vibrant and articulate conservative movement in the West.
But my main reason for loving this nation, the reason I would unquestionably take up arms in its defense, is surprisingly localist. America contains so many places I cherish and has given me so many friends, that I love it by extension and take a passionately personal interest in its affairs. Some of my fondest memories and all of my fondest dreams have America as their setting. After six formative years here, I am so culturally American that I resent the cold positivists who stamp in my passport—as though branding on my forehead—that I’m a “nonimmigrant alien.” Plus, this is where all my stuff is.
Whether America is or is not a unique and glorious instantiation of some abstract noun matters little—I love it for being home, now. That may not be a very American reason, but I hope it is enough.
Stefan McDaniel is a junior fellow at First Things.