February 23, 2015
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” Albert Camus said that, and he added, “I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”
That observation of Albert Camus has been on my mind since the kerfuffle began about Rudy Giuliani saying “I know this is a terrible thing to say but I do not believe that the President [Obama ] loves America.”
Of course that is an offensive thing to say, both inaccurate and ugly. Giuliani made the statement worse by coupling it with this dog whistle: “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” That’s a clear appeal to the racists who reject Obama because he is an African American.
Let’s remember that Camus made his declaration while underground, fighting in the Resistance against the Nazis, in the first of his “Letters to a German Friend,” available in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (Knopf, 1960). Camus was fighting for the best of France while being hunted not just by the Nazis but also by the then-Vichy government of France. Camus was a patriot who dared speak the truth.
Do I love my country? I love its ideals, and I’m proud when it lives up to them. And I’m not proud when it doesn’t: when we torture, when we deny the right to vote, when we jail too many, when we spy and lie. When anyone criticizes this country for these and other failures, I don’t take it to be a failure of loving but rather a very act of love. I mind much more when this or any president fails to press for “liberty and justice for all.”
All this was on my mind when I read David Brooks’s Friday column in the New York Times, The Nationalist Solution. Brooks was writing about where ISIS and other variants of Islamic extremism come from. “Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse,” he wrote. “You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision.” He was arguing against views that tie extremism more mundanely to lack of economic opportunity. I agree with him on this.
But then he added a shout out to a certain kind of nationalism, posing democratic nationalism as the sort of “heroic vision” we need to challenge Islamic fundamentalism. “We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be,” Brooks wrote. “But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.”
Always? Hardly. Yes, democracy can soften the dangers of nationalism. Yes, I believe “nationalism tied to universal democracy” can be a progressive force that brings good things. In the United States it brought us broader public education, social security and medicare, for example. But it, too, can and has overreached. In the name of “nationalism tied to universal democracy,” minorities can find their rights trampled. That’s been true in “America, France, Britain and beyond.”
I love my country when it extends respect and decency to all human beings (“liberty and justice for all”) not just when it piles up benefits for “us,” whoever “us” may be. I don’t want loving my country to be a pursuit of benefits for us that come at the expense of others who are “not us,” whether those “others” are within our borders or beyond.
I’ve grown increasingly wary of “nationalism” as a progressive principle. I expect I’ll say more about why in the future.