A few nights ago, the New York Knicks played the Washington Wizards. As a Knicks fan part-timing as a college student, I tuned gleefully into the last few minutes of the game to find Knicks star Julius Randle leading the Knicks to a resounding victory with 24 points and 18 rebounds. As is customary, I hopped on Twitter for a few minutes after the game to read Knicks fans’ thoughts and to memorize some opinions that I’d later pass off as my own. The first few Tweets made sense: “Vote Julius Randle to the All-Star game”, “Knicks defense had the Wizards in the penitentiary all game”, and so on. But then I started seeing stuff along the lines of “Randle trade value at an all time high”. What? I thought we all loved Julius!
The logic behind the “trade Randle” Tweets is admittedly sound; Randle is a little on the older side for a young star, and a stronger team might be willing to send more valuable future assets to the Knicks in exchange for his services. But that just doesn’t feel right. The rational Knicks fan understands that the Knicks might be better off if they trade Randle soon, but isn’t Knicks fandom about being a fan of the players on the team? What, then, does it even mean to be a Knicks fan, and, as a fan, how should I love the Knicks? These questions about sports fandom get at a deeper, more difficult issue: what does it mean to support an institution, an abstract entity made up of moving pieces each with a specific role in the institutional structure?
To you Knicks fans who thought this was going to be an ode to my love for the Knicks, I must disappoint you. This is about the United States of America, another perpetually divisive institution that, despite recent struggles and brief moments as a global laughingstock, maintains a certain level of prestige and power in its respective field (yes, the Knicks still run New York). Just as the Randle trade talk made me think twice about the exact nature of my Knicks fandom, recent events in the American political sphere (notably the election of Joe Biden to President and the continuous battle between conservative and progressive Democrats) have made me rethink my understanding of the institution. It’s worth asking the same questions we do about our fealty to other institutions about America, if not moreso, because our engagement with other institutions rarely has implications as large as our engagement with the US. So, let’s systematically ask: “why do we love America, if at all?” and “how do we love America, if at all?”. By digging into our relationship with Uncle Sam, maybe I’ll figure out what it is about the Knicks that I love.
Examinations of patriotism are as old as the concept of the state itself, and they’ve generated such so many philosophies that it seems foolish to start this essay from scratch. For all practical purposes, our inquiry should begin with some of the thoughts that are already pervasive in American discourse. By surveying some common interpretations of American love, we might be able to filter out the weakest ones and arrive at a reasonable, robust ideology.
Perhaps the most common answer to “why love America?” is that America has given many of us tremendous life opportunities that we would not have found elsewhere in the world. I have personally been told many-a-time that I should be grateful to this country for giving my family the opportunity to come here. Aside from the racist undertones of such a statement (why should I be grateful that a country did not immediately reject my family from immigrating here? Shouldn’t that be the norm?), I’m not quite sure what it means for me to be grateful to America in general. I am absolutely thankful for the fact that my family had the opportunity to come here, birth me, and send me to college.
But upon interrogating that thankfulness, I find that I’m most thankful for the work of individuals in the Civil Rights movement who paved the path for my family’s migration. The Civil Rights movement precipitated the passage of legislation like the the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished race-based immigration quotas and effectively ended overt racial discrimination in the US immigration system. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement were American, but they were also subject to physical and psychological violence at the hands of American institutions like the police and the FBI.
There’s room for nuance: I can love certain aspects of America that permitted my existence while despising and repudiating other aspects of America that actively sought to prevent it. It’s notable that in this situation, the aspects of America that I’m choosing to dislike are ones we can think of as “institutions”, ones with which we would traditionally associate the larger institution of “America”, and the ones I’m choosing to like are individuals that fought against those institutions. Perversely, in their fight against American institutions, those individuals were engaging in thoroughly American actions.
Another common refrain is that the American military plays the role of global peacekeeper and democratizer, so we should be grateful for its actions across the world. Many Americans have a certain reverence for the military that they do not have for other institutions: a majority of Americans, regardless of identity, consistently poll as admiring the military and feeling as if it is an important American institution (of note from a 2011 Pew Research poll, a stunning 91% of respondents felt “proud” of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq). Military love is so ingrained in our culture that criticizing the military is seen as a moral evil on par with killing innocent civilians: Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem in solidarity with Black people killed by police was for many individuals negated by the fact that he was “disrespecting the military”, an offense so heinous it might for them be comparable to physical brutality.
But this, again, demonstrates a stunning lack of ability to deal in nuance. What does it mean to disrespect the military? Yet again, we run into the question of our relationships with institutions composed of individuals. Here, it seems relatively easy to separate the military into two distinct elements: the individual soldiers and the larger institution of the “military”, its goals, ideology, and operations. Continuing with the Kaepernick example, and assuming that he somehow was indeed “disrespecting the military”, how was he disrespecting individual soldiers? Whether any individual soldier was disrespected by his action is irrelevant to the structure of his action; Kaepernick in fact consulted a veteran who green-lighted his protest, and there is simply no way you can equate this sort of action with spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam. I have yet to meet a single individual who we would consider “anti-American” that actively disrespects individual soldiers to their person, because individual soldiers do not represent the larger American structures that are the target of their scorn. Similarly, a logical Knicks fan understands that it would be foolish and untoward to hurl abuse at point guard Frank Ntilikina for being relatively passive on offense when the organization failed to develop his offensive skills and when that more passive role was forced on him by the Knicks’ institutional structure, from the general manager to the coach. What do we say, then, about the larger institution?
If Kaepernick disrespected the military, but not individual soldiers, he must have disrespected the military as an institution. I have yet to hear an explanation of why this is morally abhorrent, or anti-American, that does not involve defending individual soldiers. Of course devaluing the lives of individual troops is misguided — but why is criticizing the military at large just as bad? Should we blindly accept the fact that the US military has been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands across the globe and indirectly responsible for millions more? Is it anti-American to call out the military and the CIA for orchestrating the ousting of Indonesian leader Sukarno and his replacement by Suharto, who proceeded to kill up to a million suspected Communist sympathizers and ethnic minorities in 1965? Or for the same type of operation in Nicaragua? Or the Congo? Barring disrespect or violence towards individual soldiers, is it not much more valuable to criticize the military than to blindly love it?
Unless you view the lives of non-Americans as fundamentally non-valuable, showing love to the military as an institution does nothing for you. The military does not need your support — it has trillions of dollars instead. It needs your criticism, critical thinking, and keen eye. If I tweet that the military and CIA are bad for actively aiding the overthrow of a popularly elected Iranian Prime Minister and his subsequent replacement by the autocratic Shah, nobody would bat an eyelid. If everyone tweeted something like that, or if our popular discourse was open to this sort of discussion, perhaps we would be engaging in less operations like the several I just described. In this sense, I would argue that it’s more American to criticize the military for its innumerable atrocities than to blindly love it. If, somehow, Colin Kaepernick’s protest against Black death was a protest against the military (and not against individual soldiers), he did something profoundly American.
What were we talking about again? Our relationship with America as an institution. I took this extended detour about the military primarily because it illustrates a central point that we are discovering about relationships with institutions, one that we can call the “infinite criticism principle”: unless the existence of the institution is contingent on your support, it is more valuable to that institution to be relentlessly critical of it than it is to be blindly faithful of it.
In the case of the military, it’s much more valuable to us as regular citizens who compete with the military for government budgeting to ensure that it runs as effectively as possible by keeping a close eye on it and criticizing it when necessary than it is to be blindly faithful of it. Blind, uncompromising love in an institution leads to a lack of accountability, stagnation, and eventual calamity (note the 2008 financial recession that threatened to wreck the earth). While our engagement with America should not be characterized by infinite criticism or blind faith, we should lean heavily towards criticism. By virtue of its value to the larger institution, it is more American to be critical of America than to be adoring of it.
We have two observations about our relationship to America that are beginning to resemble an ideology: first, virtuous American practices and histories can often more accurately be attributed to individual Americans, illustrating the need for nuance and the benefits of institutional criticism. Second, that same institutional criticism is in fact more American than its opposite (unwavering love and support for America, which is often seen as the paragon of Americanism). These points present an interesting perspective on Knicks fandom as well: “the Knicks”, as an institution, only means something insofar as its individuals mean something; the hard-playing, gritty culture that fans associate with the Knicks was the direct result of the playstyles of individual Knicks. Maybe, then, it’s OK for me to want Randle to remain on the team; after all, his play is what most defines the team right now. But the infinite criticism perspective would side with the “trade Randle” Knicks fan – by consistently finding ways to improve the organization, this type of fan is pushing the Knicks in the right direction. Taken together, the two principles demonstrate that an understanding of both versions of fandom is necessary to properly articulate our relationship with the Knicks.
Let’s continue evaluating some answers to the question of why and how we should love America. Across the globe, patriots unite in their shared cultural experiences. Indian patriotism (which increasingly takes the dangerous form of Hindu nationalism) is often grounded in shared revelry in a uniquely Indian experience that Indians across the country have; despite India’s dramatically varied geography, linguistics, and cuisine, Indians share a national identity stemming from the desire to build a nation in spite of a remarkably recent history of colonization. Indian nationalism was born during the Indian independence movement, and it was instrumental in successfully transitioning India from a colonial state at the mercy of the British to the largest democracy in human history. Unlike India, Americans cannot really unite against a common oppressor. Taxes are not the British Empire; George III, King of England in 1796, does not really inspire hatred in anybody I know. Without this sort of unified, state-building-in-the-face-of-oppression starting point, we would need a shared cultural heritage to really inspire love for America.
Like India (though in a very different manner), however, Americans do not share much of a single cultural identity; there’s no “American food”, not much of an “American culture”, etc. The American culture that we do have and that we experience collectively is largely defined by our politics, and though our model of sports and entertainment is singularly powerful, it’s not something for which Americans share love. Indians rally behind the cricket team; half of the American replies to an ESPN tweet about the US Men’s Soccer Team are often “not a sport”. These American cultural phenomena — sports, television, filmmaking, music, suburbia — have been mass-produced and exported to the rest of the globe such that they are no longer American; hip-hop started as a uniquely American response to governmental oppression, but it’s now been taken up by young people across the globe.
What Americans do share is a set of moral and human values. Americans are highly concerned with individual freedom, equality, and justice; polls find that these are a majority of Americans’ primary values, and all 3 are frequently mentioned in some of America’s founding documents, like the Federalist Papers or the Constitution. Perhaps this is a way to embrace America: though we have rarely followed through on all three values, seeking instead to promote them only for a select portion of the population, we should all attempt to pursue and embody them in our lives.
While America, as an institution, lacks a shared social language, common cultural experiences, and many other features that might inspire love in our country, it was founded on three principles that everybody can absolutely attempt to live by. Our unique diversity and melting-pot style society might not have been what the founders envisioned, but it makes our task of living by freedom, equality, and justice all the more interesting and a strong test of our collective moral fabric. Recently, then, we’ve failed to love America: our understanding of freedom, equality, and justice is more fractured than ever, fraught with toxic, divisive popular discourse and impatience. But like the Knicks, America has ups and downs. Admittedly, it feels like we’re headed on a permanent downward trend. Climate change, incalculable inequality, and a rapid-fire set of near-existential crises seem to be harbingers of doom. But it felt like that for a while with the Knicks. In fact, most of recent Knicks franchise history has been defined by finding different ways of inducing existential dread in the Knicks fanbase. But Julius Randle and others have us Knicks fans optimistic.
Being a Knicks fan isn’t about supporting every decision the front office makes. It’s also not about treating individual players as solely representative of the institution. It’s about staking out your own middle ground, one that acknowledges the power of collective criticism in pushing the institution in a good direction while allowing you to love what you have. And just like the Knicks, America is an institution made up of countless elements that should each be evaluated independently, with the common goal of pushing the larger institution of America forward. Criticizing American institutions with the intention of making them better is the purest form of patriotism I can imagine. As global inequality grows to unfathomable proportions and existential crises line up one-by-one to confront us, Americans must lovingly embrace this form of patriotism. It may be our only hope.
- Barber, Rebekah. “How the Civil Rights Movement Opened the Door to Immigrants of Color.” Facing South, Chris Kromm, 3 Feb. 2017, www.facingsouth.org/2017/02/how-civil-rights-movement-opened-door-immigrants-color.
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- Weissman, S. R. (2014). What really happened in Congo: the CIA, the murder of Lumumba, and the rise of Mobutu. Foreign Aff., 93, 14.
- Wu, Lawrence, and Michelle Lanz. “How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days.” NPR, NPR, 7 Feb. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/01/31/690363402/how-the-cia-overthrew-irans-democracy-in-four-days.