Not His Call

Ophelia Benson

It’s hard to believe we’re back to “Love It or Leave It” again—it seems so very embedded in the years of the Vietnam War, Johnson-Nixon, Jane Fonda, George Wallace. Where does Donald Trump fit into that? He wasn’t an anti-war protester, but he wasn’t an angry homecoming veteran either. He was Mister Medical Deferment because of “bone spurs.” The furious-patriot hat fits just as badly as the Goldilocks combover, but he wears it anyway. In short, we are back to it, so the first question is: What does it mean? What is it to love one’s native country?

I can grasp a rough, intuitive, unexamined meaning, I suppose: it has to do with feeling at home, belonging, comfort, and the like. But if we’re going to use it as a bludgeon to silence left-wing women of color and other dissidents, then we should examine the meaning. What is it we are being told to love on pain of expulsion? The physical country, sea to shining sea? The Constitution? The history? The current government? The population? It would be worth knowing the exact terms of the mandate, in case we can get anyone to listen to us before we’re pushed onto the plane. The reality is that loving a country is a big unwieldy concept compared to loving a person or a book or a flavor of ice cream.

Even if we can figure out exactly what we’re being ordered to love, it’s not actually the case that we’re legally obliged to do so. We’re not required to feel amorous toward “it” as a condition of being allowed to go on living here as citizens. We’re not made to undergo regular “love it” inspections to gauge whether our affection levels are above the red line. We don’t have to send monthly reports on our patriopassion on pain of expulsion. If we were born here, we get to live here, no questions asked. If we become citizens, same deal: we get to live here.

Granted there have been some feints toward the idea in the past. The House Un-American Activities Committee was a kind of “Do you really love us?” exercise, but even then, the outcome was not expulsion from the country. The Civil War was a serious attempt at divorce, and from that we got the anxieties about allegiance that led to the wretched custom of making children swear a solemn oath every school day as if we were hoping to create a robot army. But even then, allegiance is not the same as love.

It is true that adults who immigrate here do have to undergo a ceremony in which they renounce previous loyalty and shift it to this one. But that’s once; when it’s done it’s done. The government doesn’t phone the new citizens every day to ask, “Do you still love me? Do you really love me? What do you love about me most? Why were you making eyes at that other country yesterday?”

Maybe that will change, though. Maybe Trump and Mitch McConnell will somehow get a law passed allowing deportations of bad, ungrateful citizens who don’t Love It enough. What will the criteria be? What does Trump consider essential for love-adequacy?

Top of the list is the flag. Trump himself likes to give it a big hug, but I don’t think they’ll want all of us grubby citizens doing that. We’ll be required to salute or bow or pledge or sing, depending on the occasion. The one thing we must never do is kneel; that will mean an instant call to the 1-800-LoveIt hotline.

Second is the military. The core purpose and meaning of a country is to make war on all other countries. Third is the other gun-carrying sectors: border patrol, the police, prison guards, militias, security guards, kids who take guns to school. Our most cherished value is force, and anyone who has any reservations about the use of force in all circumstances doesn’t Love It and should go live in Paris.

Fourth is sports—mostly football, as the one that makes the most enthusiastic use of force, but also golf and shooting endangered animals. Fifth is money, and rich people, and a thin layer of gold plate on everything.

That’s it. Love those things properly, and you’re one of us; raise a skeptical eyebrow at any of them, and you’re out on your foreign socialist weirdo behind.

The truth is, the people who shout “love it or leave it” and “throw her out” don’t Love It in any general all-embracing sense themselves. What they love is their preferred version of It. Guess what: so do we; so does everyone. We love what we love and not what we don’t.

Many of us, for instance, love the physical country—the mountains and deserts and river systems and forests—so we want laws and regulations that protect them. Trump has been doing his best to undo such regulations. Is it really unmistakable that the “no protections” side of that disagreement is the one that loves the country while the other doesn’t?

Some of us love our artistic and cultural achievements—the blues, rap, neighborhood murals, Emily Dickinson, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Some love the space program, some love the bridges and dams and tall buildings, some love the Ayn Rand–style capitalism, some love the tradition of protest and reform. There’s much to love and much to improve, and we really are allowed to decide for ourselves which is which.

The bottom line is that mandated love isn’t love; it’s just force. It works the same way as mandated belief: a god that has to say “You will believe in me or else” is just prompting us to ask why it’s an issue. If belief in the god has to be commanded, then the god must not be believable—so perhaps it’s not there at all. If the love of country has to be demanded with menaces, perhaps it has been forfeited.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).