Beware Those Who “Care” About Their Country

A dear American friend who had been silent for weeks finally e-mailed yesterday to explain the cause of his recent absence, although no explanation was needed.

The thrust of his missive lay in these words:

It’s quite impossible to know loss or suffering if you’ve never known love, just as sunny weather all the time produces only desert. I know the great pain I feel in my heart is the loss of the America I love. I also know that this was/is inevitable, and have recognized that for some time.

I love my friend, in part, for exactly this kind of honesty in the face of adversity. No childish fantasies of political saviors who will singlehandedly stem the tide, no easy “Us vs. Them” tribalism reducing real hardship to rah-rah mass entertainment, but only sobriety and sincere reckoning with a heartbreaking but undeniable truth that must be faced in order to be redeemed. That’s the kind of man I want with me on the long journey.

His framing of his nation’s predicament in the context of love and loss puts me in mind of one of the most profound contemporary discussions of the fate of love in the modern world, namely that of Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind — a discussion which also sheds analogous light on the current political environment.

These days, Bloom observes, there is very little evidence of genuine love, as we have all been reduced by nihilistic materialism and relativistic egalitarianism to the diminished emotional and rhetorical world of “relationships.” He analyzes the tangible differences between the project-like “relationships” in which modern university students typically and serially engage, and the life-altering loves that young adults in eras of personal modesty and the civilizing sublimation of Eros used to be capable of experiencing. One important point of contrast has remained deeply entrenched within my own thinking, from my first reading of Bloom’s book while an enthusiastic but inexperienced undergraduate, right up to the present, as I watch my own students in Korea living out the same diminution of the soul that Bloom observed in North American universities more than a generation ago.

Genuine love — the “divine madness” that Socrates praised, the spiritual source of great poetry, art, and philosophy — begins with images of perfection and eternal ideals, and is essentially blind to any practical difficulties and deficiencies, which appear as peccadilloes, or even endearments, to the mind immersed in what Bloom nicely terms “love’s mad self-forgetting, the last of the genuine fanaticisms.” In a modern “relationship,” by contrast, the problems and presumed deficiencies come at the start, as “reasonable calculations,” and then the prospective couple, like businessmen negotiating a contract, struggle to find common ground and points of compatibility, while always being careful not to give up too much in the deal.

This difference in human connections old and new is clearly analogous to, and perhaps even reflected in, the changed attitude toward love of country. To love America, in the sense that my old-fashioned friend embodies that love, used to mean thinking, in effect, “This beautiful idea is worth fighting for and holding onto, and nothing must be allowed to undermine that.” Today, on the other hand, when American progressives bother to express any attachment to their country at all, they always mean, “I see terrible flaws in the project and want to try to fix them at all costs — of course because I care about America.”

One who loves naturally inclines to thinking, “She is perfect and wonderful and I couldn’t live without her.” One who “cares” naturally inclines to rationalizing, “She would be so much better if only she would change in the ways I recommend, so for her own good, I am going to force her to change.”

Beware those who “care.” Beware those who seek to forge a “better relationship” with a free republic — who look at freedom and see a set of problems to be ironed out — where men had once loved the idea of freedom so much that they could overlook anything, forgive anything, withstand anything, for the sake of that beautiful idea.

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