To Love a Country

In a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Mitt Romney was asked, “What do you dislike most about America?”

To the shock of nobody, Romney dodged the question completely, responding, “Gosh, I love America,” adding, “What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people—hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God-loving, family-oriented American people.”

It was a lovely thought, perfectly in keeping with the public persona of the ex-governor, now-senator we have come to know and, um, not completely hate.

Really, with a dozen years of hindsight, the most remarkable thing about that moment was that the question was even asked—that someone angling to be America’s commander-in-chief was challenged in a public forum to critique the very country he hoped to lead.

Indeed, when Romney took another whack at the presidency in 2012, he released a memoir of sorts, No Apology, whose title more or less summed up the attitude of his campaign.  As far as he was concerned, America is an idyllic land of milk and honey that has only ever been a force for good in the world, for which it should feel nothing but unadulterated, chest-thumping pride. 

As you’ll recall, President Obama’s greatest sin in office, according to Romney and others, was to have had the temerity to apologize for America’s various historical blunders—particularly on matters of race and foreign policy—thereby implying the nation is somehow less than perfect.  The nerve!

While Romney himself has since slunk off into complete obscurity—i.e., the Senate—his view of the United States as a moral dynamo on the world stage whose superiority must never be questioned has only hardened as Republican Party orthodoxy in the years since.

Or so we were informed last week by the current president, Donald Trump, who in a Twitter broadside against four congresswomen that managed to blend howling racism with wholesale incoherence, argued that anyone who is skeptical about how the United States is run—including those who have been elected to run it—has no business residing within the country’s borders and ought to “go back” to the far-flung lands “from which they came.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE,” the president tweeted, “YOU CAN LEAVE!”

Beyond the irony that three-fourths of the congresswomen in question were, in fact, born in the United States, it has been duly noted that few people in public life have been more openly scornful of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the years than Trump himself.  Indeed, for all the money and privilege—untaxed and unchecked, respectively—that has spilled into his lap practically since birth, the president never seems to run out of grievances about the place that has handed him everything on a silver platter, up to and including its highest public office.

And yet.

Setting aside the singular, noxious bigotry that informs much of our Dear Leader’s enmity toward a republic founded on the principles of liberty, pluralism and equal justice under the law, Trump is absolutely correct in expressing his misgivings about his homeland without fear of persecution or prejudice.  He is right to assert—as he so memorably did in a 2017 interview on Fox News—that America is not “so innocent” in its behavior toward its geopolitical adversaries and, by implication, shouldn’t be held up as the moral paragon that the Mitt Romneys of the world would have you believe it is.

In other words, if you want an ironclad rebuke to the tweets of Donald Trump, look no further than the actions of Donald Trump.

That said, the president’s personal hypocrisy on this matter needn’t obscure the deeper truth, which is that the greatness of America resides precisely in the right of every one of its citizens to criticize it, because criticism, in the right hands, is among the sincerest expressions of patriotism and love.

Surely, Frederick Douglass had a few choice words for his mother country throughout his life—words that, we can safely say, have redounded to America’s benefit in the long run.  Ditto for the likes of Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony and Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and innumerable other restless rabble-rousers who found a glaring blemish in the national complexion and took it upon themselves to fix it.

Criticizing your country is the first step to perfecting it.  It’s how you keep your country honest, challenging it to live up to its loftiest ideals.

Why settle for anything less?

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The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.

As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own:  In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.

Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.

However, recent history would suggest otherwise.

If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief.  This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.

It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem.  Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter.  For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time:  When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad.  When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.

At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.

In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist.  While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.

This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”

In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects.  As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most.  Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.

It begs the question:  Why?

Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to?  Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another?  Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?

Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law?  Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free?  Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency?  Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

We don’t admit this out loud, of course.  We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”

Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want. 

Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept.  Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.

Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans.  After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?

The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party.  Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was).  While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it.  It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020.  While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.

Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.

The Prettiest Sight

In The Philadelphia Story, a lowly reporter played by James Stewart scornfully intones, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”  For one week on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this summer, that’s exactly what I was doing.  And oh, what a pretty sight it was.

Certainly, the Vineyard—regularly ranked among the priciest vacation spots in America—screams “privilege” in any season, from its private beaches and golf courses to its posh restaurants and hotels to its A-list clientele.

In my case, however, the fact that I was among New England’s most well-heeled (albeit in a budget-friendly rental unit with no room service) was ancillary to the real privilege I enjoyed for eight days and seven nights on this triangular island seven miles off Cape Cod:  The privilege to not care what was happening in the universe beyond the shore.  The privilege to disconnect from current events and suffer no consequences whatsoever.

See, in my normal, landlubber life, I’m plugged into the global newsfeed about as deeply as any good American should be, monitoring Twitter and the New York Times with freakish regularity to ensure I am always in the loop about whatever unholy nonsense the president has gotten himself into today (among other things).

But while on vacation, I made a deliberate effort to disengage from the minute-by-minute deluge of copy that otherwise scrolls across my transom, and just try to relax for a change.  By and large, I succeeded.

To be clear, this did not entail a total 24/7 news blackout.  Rather, it meant checking Facebook two or three times per day instead of the usual thirty.  It meant scanning Boston Globe headlines without necessarily reading the articles underneath them.  It meant not watching a single segment of cable or network television.

Most significantly, it meant absolute abstention from Twitter, and all the nauseating, petty political catfighting contained therein.

It meant, in effect, that I still had a vague, general sense of what was happening across the seven continents, but without the fuss of getting bogged down in the details.

What I took away from this experiment—this voluntary, temporary withdrawal from the media-industrial complex—was how precious little I was missing.  How trivial such seemingly earth-shaking stories really are when viewed in proper perspective.  How oddly pleasant it was not to be waist-deep in the muck of political tomfoolery at every hour of every day.  And how much I dreaded returning to my usual routine in the real world—which, of course, I did with all deliberate speed.

It begged the question:  What’s so great about the real world, anyway?  Why do I burden myself with the minutiae of global happenings when I could just as well spend my free time going for long walks and plowing through the collected works of Agatha Christie?

Keeping on top of the news may make me conscientious and informed, but does it really make me happy?  Would I be any worse off, as a person, were I to harness the laid-back habits I picked up on the Vineyard and maintain them until the end of my natural life?

In all likelihood I would not be, and that, in so many words, is the true meaning of privilege in 2019 America.  It’s not a question of wealth or fame (of which I have none).  Rather, it’s about the ability to tune out.  To be mentally on vacation for as long as one’s heart desires.  To ignore such unpleasantries as war, famine, global warming and the Trump administration and be affected by them not one whit.

Deep down, of course, this is just white privilege by another name, since to be white in America is to know that, however bad things may get, there will always be a spot for you on the lifeboat.  And to be a white man, all the better.

Naturally, as a bleeding heart liberal (or social justice warrior, or whatever we’re supposed to call ourselves now), I can hear the angel on my shoulder gently reminding me that the role of the Woke White Person in Trump’s America is to support and agitate on behalf of the downtrodden—immigrants, Muslims, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t Caucasian and/or male and doesn’t have the luxury to take a mental health break from reality—which requires paying close attention to what is being inflicted upon one’s fellow countrymen—and aspiring countrymen—on our watch, in our name.

On refection, it seems like a fair price to pay for someone whose life is sufficiently charmed as to be able to spend a week of every June on a place like Martha’s Vineyard, watching the sun rise over Edgartown Harbor and guzzling beer and clam chowder without a care in the world.

After all, there is some happiness to be found in simply being involved—however meekly—in the national discourse, particularly when Election Day rolls around, as it is wont to do every now and again.  That’s to say nothing for the lowly blogger, who will sooner or later need to write about something other than lobster rolls and how to avoid being eaten by a shark.