On Love and Confidence
Perhaps it’s his lack of children that enables liberal columnist Joel Stein so succinctly to enunciate one of the more damaging failures of philosophy in modern culture:
True love is the blind belief that your child is the smartest, cutest, most charming person in the world, one you would gladly die for.
The ineluctable consequence of a belief that “true love” entails certainty in its object’s perfection is the conclusion that one does not love that object when flaws inevitably emerge. Can it be doubted that this is a common pathology in our era? Irresponsible fathers leave their children because they prove difficult. Wives leave their husbands because they can’t maintain that alluring blend of mystery and security. And Joel Stein is only “in ‘like’ with [his] country” because its people are flawed.
That said, I’ll acknowledge that love “because it’s mine” — what Stein calls “tribalism” — is intellectually unsatisfying and, indeed, stinks of self deception. One should no more love based on happenstance than one should hate based on coincidence. The lingering “what if” of those bases for such strong emotions can fester and corrupt.
No, love — whether of child, spouse, or country — must be a matter of spark and decision. The spark is of inspiration — the comprehension of something in the other that rests in the palms like a precious gem — and the decision is to commit to intertwinement — even when beauty fades and quirks begin to rankle, even when the child rebels and the nation falls into the hands of a political enemy, even when the gem no longer gleams from beneath layers of muck. The failure of such love is less evidence that the object is not worthy of being loved than an indication that the erstwhile lover is incapable of loving.
Thus it is that Stein pats himself on the back for his intellectual complexity, even as he exhibits simplicity of self-comprehension:
… I still think conservatives love America for the same tribalistic reasons people love whatever groups they belong to. These are the people who are sure Christianity is the only right religion, that America is the best country, that the Republicans have the only good candidates, that gays have cooties.
I wish I felt such certainty. Sure, it makes life less interesting and nuanced, and absolute conviction can lead to dangerous extremism, but I suspect it makes people happier. I’ll never experience the joy of Hannity-level patriotism. I’m the type who always wonders if some other idea or place or system is better and I’m missing out.
Although his claim is of a native circumspection, Stein is apparently very certain that it is false to claim Christianity as “the only right religion” and that it is simplistic to rank America as “the best country” (leave the two lapses into partisan rhetoric aside). It is difficult to take Stein at his word, therefore, that he “wonders” whether something better exists; there aren’t really any mystery countries out there, after all. His reader can infer with confidence, from Stein’s writing and his identified ideology, that he already knows what idea and system would be better and will love the place that most closely approximates his utopia.
Joel is not wrong that he cannot love his country as others do, because a requirement of love’s commitment is acceptance, to the point of a willingness to change rather than impose. After the spark and the decision comes growth, of the sort that lattice enables in vines.
Stein ends his column with a statement of recognition that he cannot love his country as he professes to love his wife. Presumably he’s made a deliberate attempt not to “always wonder” whether he isn’t missing out on someone better. If I were to advise the lady, though, I’d suggest that she see if she can’t bring her hubby around to a less abashed patriotism, perhaps beginning with a flag lapel pin as a St. Valentine’s Day gift.