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America is Great Precisely Because It's Not
On the love of country, even if it doesn't always treat you well.
It’s July 4th. For the Americans among you, you’re probably at a barbecue. Let’s be honest—you’re probably not thinking about how awesome (or disappointing) your country is. Regardless, I wanted to share an adapted version of an essay I wrote last year. It’s now paywalled, but in the spirit of the day, I’m sharing it as a way of saying thank you to members of our growing community. It’s basically a love letter to America—both because it’s a great country but also because it can often be “shitty.”
This piece captures important shifts in my own thinking that have taken place over the course of the Trump years and their aftermath. The points made here relate to many of the themes I’ve explored in recent months, including the tragic, inescapable fact that good things don’t necessarily go together and to expect them to almost seems like a violation of God’s cosmic justice. Enjoy, and please feel free to share your thoughts (and criticisms) in the comments.
To love a country is perhaps not so different than loving a person. It is inelegant, a fundamentally irrational process, one that might be easy to explain to yourself but not necessarily to others. Or maybe it’s like loving the members of your family; you do not lose your love because of their faults. Instead, you love despite great faults, and then, in time, those very faults become inextricable to the act of loving.
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I’m more or less comfortable accepting the premise that America is a deeply flawed country, maybe even a “shitty” country, while also acknowledging, without apology, that I feel a certain attachment to that same shittiness. It’s an odd thing to come to terms with. We’re never going to be like Western Europe, not so much because we shouldn’t, but rather because we can’t.
On the subject of Americans’ conflicting feelings about American greatness, this essay byis very good, even though I'm not sure I fully understand it. But it captures why I love America better than almost anything I've read in a long time. It's very hard to describe, so he (and I) can only gesture at it.
Whenever I'm in (Western) Europe, I fantasize about living in Europe. Life there seems so, well, "pleasant," which might seem like a blessing. But it's also a curse, at least for someone like me. Obviously this is an oversimplification, but in the aggregate it at least seems like more people actually enjoy being alive in, say, Italy—or at least that’s how I felt when I was in Italy last. Self-reported measures of happiness are also at least somewhat higher in Western Europe (although how individuals self-report happiness is often marred by preference falsification). But my sense is less quantitative and more impressionistic and anecdotal. The long leisurely lunches. The stoic acceptance of unfortunate fates, and a willingness to live in the moment that one has, without longing for something slightly but perpetually out of reach.
Some of this has to do with meritocracy and competition. Hyper-wealth in Western Europe isn’t as common, but it is certainly more inherited. Accumulated wealth is more a function of lingering aristocracy than exceptional talent, skill or innovation. In contrast, even if the American dream isn’t actually real, the fact that every American is aware of what might otherwise be a fiction offers up a sense of possibility—that, with enough smarts and hard work, you could at least try to be the next great tech bro (or investment banker) through sheer force of will along with the requisite accidents of good fortune. Myths don’t have to be real to be effective. In fact, they can be more effective precisely because they are products of imagination and patriotism, however misplaced.
Most people throughout human history (and even now) do not live their lives in the throes of unrealized ambition. They are not constantly comparing, striving, searching for life hacks. The cult of self-improvement is, now, sadly a universal cult, but in this like so many other things American remains the leader. I love this about America, but I also know it makes people miserable. Some of this is about meritocracy—now, but not always, a pejorative term. I know meritocracy is real, because I saw the possibilities it opened up for my parents and so many other immigrant families. Meritocracy might be good and preferable, but does it make us happier? That this is what we have come to, as Daniel Markovits writes in The Meritocracy Trap, suggests that the answer may be ‘no.’
Rich parents in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco now commonly apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews—all designed to evaluate 4-year-olds. Applying to elite middle and high schools repeats the ordeal. Where aristocratic children once reveled in their privilege, meritocratic children now calculate their future—they plan and they scheme, through rituals of stage-managed self-presentation, in familiar rhythms of ambition, hope.
This is no way to live, is it? The old European gentry, with their even older money, thought of money as a path to leisure. One could make a life out of being a flâneur and not feel ashamed. This is now a lost art, but it’s also worth noting that it’s particularly hard to find flâneurs in the United States. As Markovits notes, “Whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity.”
This is the dark side, but would we have it any other way? If you implanted these intense, jittery, obsessive, and endlessly ambitious strivers in the more comfortable terrain of, say, Tuscany, would they find a way to be happy? Probably not. That isn’t who they are, even though we can acknowledge that it would be better for them to be someone else.
This dark side is also what makes America great, and I don’t mean that facetiously. It is just to say that the American idea requires a tradeoff, and that tradeoff, like all tradeoffs, might not be for everyone.
So, yes, America feels vaguely intolerable in a number of ways, but it's also a country that feels utterly alive with possibility. It just so happens that those possibilities are both good and bad. America is messy, vibrant, and conflictual. It is stressful. Compared to Western Europe, where the state is perpetually present like an overbearing but largely non-abusive father, few Americans even make reference to “the state” as such. In this sense, America is better understood as the world's most successful developing country—or less delicately, a “very rich third-world country.” As the political theorist Samuel Goldman reminds us, we are more like Latin America than we might like to admit. We have high crime, lots of guns, untamed religious and ideological passions that double as awakenings, tangled legacies of slavery, and a messy, chaotic pluralism that seems perpetually on brink of some mass disorder.
So we return, as always, to the question of first principles. What do we value and why do we value it? Does it really improve quality of life to know that the government isn’t going to intervene and try to shape your religious beliefs? As a Muslim, I can say that this does make life better in a very specific way (and I’ve said before that the best place to to be a Muslim in the world today might very well be right here in these United States). But not having a state that intervenes also means that the social safety net isn’t particularly safe nor is it really even a net, with its suggestion of falling but having something other than concrete upon which to fall.
Could we be a country of immigrants and immigration if we had a more robust welfare state, similar to Western European countries, particularly the ones liberals love to idealize, like Denmark, Norway, and so on? I'd hazard that the answer is no. Immigration is so hotly contested in European social democracies partly because of welfare chauvinism. The more generous a state is towards its citizens, the less willing "natives" will be to allow newcomers into their cherished grand bargain, particularly if those newcomers are "different."
It is hard to admit it, but America is already great and will always be great (as long as it survives) for the very same reasons that make it crippled, chaotic, and seemingly in decay. That’s why America always feels in decline, and why authors will spend the rest of eternity predicting a fall that will come, but only because everything eventually ends in due time. As we think ahead to this new year, that might be unsatisfying. This is not exactly a call-to-arms or a stirring encomium to remember who we are. Rather, it is a reminder that we will probably never become what we wish we could be—or even what we should be. Maybe that’s okay. I think I’m fine with it, at least for today. And then there’s tomorrow.
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