We have arrived at the point where the utter tedium and desperation of personal attacks against the president about his life story and his loyalty are no longer news. The histrionics have shed their ability to shock. Most right-minded Americans — ethically speaking, not ideologically speaking — have moved on.
But occasionally the insults prove to be accidentally instructive.
Take for instance what Rudy Giuliani (“America’s mayor”) said about the president last week at a dinner for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (a contender for America’s president). At the dinner — attended, according to Politico, by “about 60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types” — Giuliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” He continued, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
Yes, Mr. Mayor, it was a horrible thing to say, which is why you backpedaled. On Fox, Giuliani gave a meandering, mealy-mouthed defense of the this vile statement, claiming, preposterously, that “I’m not questioning his patriotism,” explaining that he hears Obama “criticize America much more often than other American presidents” and questioning the president’s faith in American exceptionalism.
Ah, American exceptionalism again.
This is in part about a fundamental difference in views. It is a definitional difference, not about the meaning of love but about the meaning of America and its place in the world. Does exceptionalism — if one accepts the premise — bestow exemption from critique? Is uniqueness perfection? Does our difference require some sort of arresting of development?
As the Pew Research Center pointed out in July, “the view that the U.S. is exceptional — standing above all other countries in the world — has declined 10 points since 2011.” At that time last year, 58 percent of Americans believed America is “one of the greatest countries in the world, along with others,” while only 28 percent believed America “stands above all other countries in the world.” (Whether this is truly a measure of exceptionalism or diminished standing isn’t completely clear to me.)
And what does it mean to love the country? We’re not talking about touristic love of the place — not the mountains and the valleys, the cities and the suburbs, the mighty rivers and the shores that kiss the oceans — but a love of the idea of America.
In a way, this is an ideological battle. Conservatism is rooted in preservation; progressivism advances alteration. These are different love languages. These languages turn on your view of change itself: When you think of America, do you see a country struggling to be maintained or one striving to be made better?
The president not only ran for office on the idea of change, but his presence — in both visage and values — is the manifestation of change. He not only represents a very real affront to the status quo and traditional power but is also not shy about pointing out where America can improve.
Our allegiance needn’t — mustn’t — be blind to be true. We must acknowledge our warts if we are to proclaim our beauty. Our aggrandizement must be grounded. We must be willing to laud America where it has soared and rebuke it where it has faltered.
America is a great country in many ways. But it is far from perfect.
America is a living idea. It isn’t only the tenets of its founding, but also the terms of its future. Every day, we make America.
“All men are created equal” is an exquisite idea, but one that wasn’t fully embraced when the words were written. We, the American people, have pushed this country to consider that clause in the broadest possible interpretation for hundreds of years.
We are engaged in a constant struggle to force America to “be true to what you said on paper,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it.
The concept of forming “a more perfect union” has embedded in it the idea of ambition but not perfection itself. There is room for betterment. America is not static. America is striving.
And sometimes, America requires critique. Jingoism is an avoidance of realism.