Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the United States of America. I suspect I am not alone in this.
In fact, I know I am not alone in this. Every post on Facebook, half of the reports on the radio, and a third of my conversations in Uber drives involve people thinking and feeling about America. This country, its values, and its way of doing business in the world have never witnessed such scrutiny in my lifetime. And on face, that’s a great thing. I have, in many ways, been wishing for an event to prompt this self-examination my entire life, or at least my whole life since I first took a serious history class.
But self-examination doesn’t only apply to others, of course, no matter my history of self-critical reflection on this nation and my role in it. Self-examination starts with… the self.
Last night, a paradox hit me that I am still kind of reeling from and can’t quite solve. And the more I considered the paradox, the more that I realized it’s the same paradox most Americans seem to have about America, except it’s inverted. And I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion, other than explain it, offer it as lived experience, and try to see where other people are on this spectrum. I know how alone I am in most of my conclusions about the advent of the Trump administration, so I suspect I’m pretty alone in all of what follows. But I’m curious what this dredges up for anyone reading it. I’m curious what articulating it will dredge up for me.
I am someone who goes around saying that they hate America. This is not common. Increasingly, this might be dangerous. Hate is a strong word and most people who hate are prone to violence and violence against the country is the scariest thing anyone thinks exists since 9/11. Of course, I’m also a pacifist, but one who doesn’t aspire with the best of them to live without hate in their heart. I have hate in my heart. Lots of it. A lot of personal life experiences and impersonal history have combined to make me angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry, I’m sad. When I’m neither sad nor angry, I’m usually really ecstatic. This is probably because I am a manic depressive. It might just be because I’m really aggressively not afraid of my emotions, which – near as I can tell – amounts to the same thing.
But this isn’t about mental health. It’s about hate. What does it mean to hate America? The conclusion most people have about people who hate America is that they hate freedom or that they are fanatically devoted to some sort of cause hell-bent on the violent downfall of America. This is not how I feel. I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I know that some of what separates me from most of those who don’t hate America is that I don’t feel like those facts make me in any way special. Lucky, yes, but not special. I know and have discussed how much I would’ve wanted to be born in America had I been born anywhere else, not because America is a place I would want to be, but because America is the seat of power of the world so far in my lifetime, and also the seat of harmful influence on the world’s people, and I would be committed to changing that. And I can imagine the angry quarrels I would have with friends in foreign cafes, where they would look at me bemusedly across the table and claim that if I were born in America, I would not be capable of hating it, because where are the Americans who hate America. And I would glare back at them and say I knew, I knew they were wrong. How could anyone be aware about the role of America in the world and not seethe?
Of course, the other issue with the chain of births in America leading to my own is that I lack contact with living ancestors who lived elsewhere and voluntarily came here. I don’t have a relatable ancestral story of someone clinging to a raft or looking over a boat railing or sneaking aboard a vessel or over a wall into what they thought would mean freedom. I did not grow up on stories of how much was sacrificed and forgone so that I could be here on this red, white, and blue soaked soil. I can understand how it would be different if I had. If dad or granny had sold all their possessions for a sketchy ticket to this nation under the cover of night so that their grandchild or child could be born American, then it would be harder for me to feel the way I do. It would feel ungrateful, no matter what else the facts or feelings about the country said. It would feel like betrayal.
So what do I mean when I say I hate America? If I don’t want it destroyed and I don’t wish to do it ill, what does my hate really mean? And if I don’t hate freedom or immigrants or the colors red and blue, how does my hate manifest? What is it I hate about America? Its people? Its ideas? Its success?
The best one-word answer I can give is this: hypocrisy. There are many things I wish America did differently, or had never done. But it’s the hypocrisy that really riles me up, gets me actually angry and upset. It’s that America parades around in the world pretending to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and light, while actually serving as a vehicle of empire, destruction, and manipulation. If America unapologetically embraced its imperial attitude in the world, it would actually make me less hateful. At least there would be some truth, some sincerity in advertising. At least other countries would know what was coming and why. It’s the old difference between a backstab and a “frontstab” as we used to call it in weekend games of Diplomacy in Albuquerque. You can have begrudging respect for a “frontstab”. A backstab is just evil. There’s a reason Judas is a greater villain in history than Napoleon, why Dante put the betrayers in the ninth (and worst) circle. If you’re going to do a bad thing, at least let people know. It’s the absolute least you could do.
This is why I have felt so powerfully alone in the wake of Donald Trump’s first fortnight as President of the United States. The people who love America, who feel like America really does represent freedom, hope, and light in the world, they only feel betrayed by the President now. This two weeks, or maybe the three months since the election, these are their introductions to the stab of betrayal I’ve felt since I first took a serious long look at the nation’s history. To them, the country is good and Donald Trump is leading it, single-handedly, astray. To me, of course, Donald Trump’s values look exactly like America’s values. Naked self-interest, self-serving hypocrisy, abridging rights and freedoms at will, bullying, manipulation, and intimidation in the service of empire. I can recognize that he is being more brazen and escalative about these values, but again, if anything, that makes it a little more like a frontstab. He’s not making much of an effort to dress the emperor in clothes, to cloak his actions in the finery of noble causes. He’s basically going commando to the world, nude and proud, saying “come and get it, this is what we are.” When you think it’s what we’ve always been, it just doesn’t feel like that much of a change.
If you’re sitting here wondering what I could possibly be talking about when I discuss America as hypocritical or problematic, then I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I guess my best recommendation would be to watch this video that Russ Gooberman and I made ten years ago about America’s transgressions against humanity, often including its own people. The motif of the commercial was making fun of Chevy ads with John Mellencamp’s insipid “This is Our Country” tune celebrating a nation that had just wrecked Iraq and conducted Abu Ghraib as standing beside “the idea to stand and fight”. Make no mistake, Photoshopping Chevrolets into a series of American atrocities was just a vehicle (!) for reminding people of said atrocities:
And that entire two-and-a-half minute barrage is pretty light on the last fifty years, leaving out the CIA’s role in destroying democracies across the globe, barely touching on Vietnam or Afghanistan, not engaging with drone strikes or corporate imperialism or police shootings. And if you didn’t watch the video, it ran through slavery and the Native American genocide, firebombing Dresden and nuking Japan, Japanese internment and lynchings, Abu Ghraib and mass shootings, 9/11 and Katrina, the Martin Luther King assassination and the Rodney King beating, poverty and Kent State, border guards and Donald Rumsfeld, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church. If you think Trump is a betrayal of American values but those events don’t all make you want to throw up in your mouth, I don’t understand you. I just don’t.
From what I can tell, the way most people reconcile this endless history of human abuse and slaughter with loving America is precisely in the same way that I find America hypocritical. It’s because all those events diverge from the purported rhetoric of America. For some reason, America claiming to represent what’s good and right, claiming to represent democracy and freedom and openness, can forgive a million sins against those ideals. Because, according to this perspective, at least we’re trying. No matter that Soviet or Chinese shortcomings on their purported ideals of equality and freedom are written off as deliberate fraud while we make these claims. No matter how many people who observe this hypocrisy are branded as enemies and shipped to Gitmo or summarily executed by sky-robot. Our sexist and racist Constitution, our rosy image of the wealthy white male landowners who killed Britons over taxation with insufficient representation, our acceptance (and exploitation) of immigrants from select countries over the years, these are enough to absolve us of any missteps along the way. That, and we maintain the belief that we are always improving. No matter how many disastrous and catastrophic wars are fought by the last administration, no matter how many freedoms suspended in the wake of the last perceived threat to America, we always feel like we’re moving forward. Until now.
It doesn’t wash for me. I can’t do it. I can’t get through the mental hoops required to look at all that history, all those deliberate injustices and murders perpetrated in the nation’s name, and just write them off as innocent mistakes on the ledger of our role on the planet. Sure, this probably blinds me to some good that America occasionally does that I’m forgetting. But that’s just applying the same standard America does to every other leader and country on the planet as long as we’ve decided the time for them to face our wrath has come.
But the weird thing, the revelation the other night, the paradox, is this. I kind of love Americans. And I really love the place that is America. Like to a kind of absurd extreme in both cases. And driving for Uber has really reminded me, profoundly, just how much that is all the case.
I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine cities. And I’ve been to most of those states three, four, five different times. I feel like I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, but it’s mostly been domestic. I really know this nation. I have been most everywhere and seen most everything. When discussing wanting to visit San Antonio a few months ago, I stated it’s the major US city I’m most interested in visiting that I’ve never seen. But then I had to pause to realize it may be one of the only ones. Indeed, after visiting Omaha this summer, San Antonio (7th) and El Paso (19th), also in Texas, are the only two cities among the US’ fifty largest where I haven’t logged time. Corpus Christi (60th) is next on the list after that. And one road trip, a pretty accessible journey from New Orleans, could probably knock all of those out.
I love road trips across America. I love the high speed limits and open scenery of the freeway. I love roadside truck stop gas stations with their cheesy trinkets and sincere drawling service staff. I love Waffle House, wherever it is, yellow beacon in the dark promising delicious cheap greasy food and heartfelt cooks and waitresses. I love Cracker Barrel and its hard candies and needlingly difficult little triangle-peg game. I love Taco Bell drive-throughs at three in the morning, often with an Uber rider or five in tow. I love unique diners and farmers markets and scenic overlooks and cheap roadside motels where insomniacs wait behind the desk for middle-of-the-night arrivals to talk to about their rambling thoughts.
I love specific places, too. I love every National Park I’ve ever been to (except maybe Cuyahoga Valley, because it just looked like a random unimpressive urban park and I think only exists because Ohio wanted to pretend it has nature). I love the perfectly carved depths of the Grand Canyon and the bubbling vapors of Yellowstone and the majestic cliffs of Yosemite and the alien landscape of the Badlands. I love other natural wonders less storied in our landscape: the waterfalls off the Columbia in Oregon, the golden beaches of Biloxi, the rocky windswept shores of Maine. I love the cities, so many cities. I’ve passed the cable cars traversing hilly San Francisco daily, reminding myself each time to appreciate how fortunate I was to see such a sight as part of a mundane commute. Ditto driving through the low-slung French Quarter each night, now, these days, in my life, past gaslamps and into narrow three-century alleys. Ditto hiking through the crooked streets of Santa Fe from its oldest hotel to the Capitol building to simulate representing a foreign country in annual Model UN competitions. Ditto driving through all those roadtrip hallmarks to college campus after college campus, full of old quaint chapels and high brick libraries and grand domed ceilings and modern glass facades. Ditto waking up each day for a year in the Castle, now doomed to be reunited with the gritty earth of Waltham, Massachusetts. I love Harvard Square and OMSI, the Georgia Aquarium and the L train, the dingy chess shops of New York City and the forgotten bookshops of New Orleans. Powell’s, the Frontier, the Smithsonian, the Gateway Arch, the Space Needle. Chipotle and Southwest Airlines ticket counters. I love so many places in this country that does so much damage.
I play a little game with many of my Uber riders. When they ask about my background, I see how long it takes before I can talk about a place that I know and love that they’ve been. Maybe they’re from there. Maybe they just visited. Maybe they’ve always wanted to go, but they’ve read more about it than I ever will. When it comes to America, I’ll put my experience here up against most folks. It’s rare that I get stumped, that someone’s mostly been in central Texas or the west coast of Florida or Alaska or North Dakota or one of the other small pockets I haven’t traversed. And when we find that connection, whatever it is, we usually bond over our mutual love of something there, or a shared memory of a place we visited separately. Sometimes it really hits home – a couple who grew up in Albuquerque or a woman who also did Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in her youth or a student who went to Rutgers or Brandeis. But more often, it’s just a place I’ve passed through, remembered, taken to heart. And in that process, I come to love these people too, these kind wonderful appreciative people swirling in their newfound awe of New Orleans as I drive them to their hotel or to another bar or to the show. They are good people who want good things for themselves and others. And I want that for them and theirs as well.
So what can I hate about America? Is it really so that what I hate about America is the idea of America? Or, more perfectly (!), how the idea fails and becomes the reality of our actions, our collective actions, our place in the world? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin, love the place where we commit the sins but hate the consequences? That seems about the size of it. I should hold these people more accountable for all of our collective actions, perhaps, but they seem so remote, so uncontrollable. Even with the soldiers or their families, even with the corporate attorneys.
This is what my best novel, still unpublished, American Dream On is mostly about. How bad things happen from good people. And how beautiful the backdrop is. I put so many of those little places that I love throughout the book. Not just because I wanted it to be an epic that encompassed the whole idea and reality of America. But because so much of the place is so memorable and so great. Is that really all that people who love America see? Or where they stop?
Of course, the more unsettling and alienating reality, for me, is that most people who love America and hate Trump increasingly seem to hate many places and people in America. And, to be fair, ditto those who love America and love Trump. The cataclysmic divide accentuated by this election and the string of shock doctrine actions by new President Trump has created an America united in its self-love, but bound in conflict by mutual loathing. Red America hates Blue America and vice versa. People lampoon the iconography and geography of the “other” America, discredit its people as unthinking or unfeeling, sabotage the other half as irrelevant or downright evil. I am not here to get preachy about why you feel that way and that you shouldn’t – I get it. I get why so many people say that anyone who even said the word “Trump” without hate in their heart during the year 2016 is complicit with his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And I get why so many people observe this as hypocrisy when Obama did much that was similar, if more measured, muted, and dignified. I get where y’all are coming from. Maybe because I feel like I love all of you. Really.
What do I do with a country I hate full of people and places I love? What do you all do with a country you love full of people and places you hate?
You tell me. Because I really don’t know.