My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservativeby Norman Podhoretz
My Love Affair with America is more than the poignant recovery of lost time. Podhoretz uses his own experience to launch a strong defense of America and American values at a time when he fears that his fellow conservatives are in danger of following the path of the New Left into contempt for their native land. The gratitude Podhoretz feels for the United States is
My Love Affair with America is more than the poignant recovery of lost time. Podhoretz uses his own experience to launch a strong defense of America and American values at a time when he fears that his fellow conservatives are in danger of following the path of the New Left into contempt for their native land. The gratitude Podhoretz feels for the United States is a challenge to the political Right as well as the Left.
The New York Times Book Review
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As far back as the eighteenth century, the great literary critic and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, a fervent Tory who might have been expected to think otherwise, famously dismissed patriotism to give love of country its proper name as "the last refuge of a scoundrel." And for at least the past hundred years, patriotism has been treated even more derisively by American writers and intellectuals than it was by the towering Englishman who came before them. It has been associated not only with scoundrels but with charlatans, demagogues, fools, nativist bigots, and the "boosterism" that H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and so many others once mercilessly ridiculed to such lasting effect.
Nationalism, a related though distinct phenomenon, has perhaps fared even worse. Since it suggests pride in, more than love of, country and carries with it besides an intimation of defiant bellicosity which at its extreme edges becomes jingoism or chauvinism, nationalism has often been excoriated as the main cause of war. There was a time, for example, when it (rather than, say, the character and traditions of the German people or the grievances arising from the Treaty of Versailles or the mysteriously persistent power of anti-Semitism) was widely blamed for the rise of Nazism.
On the other hand, love of country, and pride in it, is so common a feeling among peoples everywhere in the world that there seems something almost fatuous, if not positively perverse, about making an issue of it. Celebrating or condemning patriotism, and even nationalism, is rather like praising or deploring human nature itself. After all, even a lifelong radical like the philosopher Bertrand Russell couldsay of his own country that "Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess."
I feel much the same way about America, land of my birth, "land that I love." (I can still hear those words being belted out every week on the radio by Kate Smith, a big star of the 1940s, in her signature song, "God Bless America.") But I only plumbed the depths of this feeling in the course of being driven, almost against my will, to defend the country with all my might against its ideological enemies on the Left from the late 1960s on. These were people who had been my own political allies and personal friends up to the point where they were seized by a veritable hatred of America; and it was because I could not stomach the terrible and untrue things they were saying about this country that I wound up breaking with them.
Eventually, with a pit stop or two along the way, I sought and found refuge on the Right, not least because its attitude toward America was in complete harmony with my own. But then, in the mid-1990s, there unexpectedly came an outburst of anti-Americanism even among some of the very conservatives I thought had been permanently immunized against it. I should have known better than to be surprised, familiar as I was with the traditions on which the conservatives were drawing and which they were now updating. These were traditions that had mostly originated in America itself in the period after the Civil War, but reinforcements had also been imported from Europe (where, by the way, anti-Americanism was just now enjoying a resurgence evidently fueled by resentment of the fact that the United States had been left by the fall of the Soviet Union as the only "superpower" in the world).
The motives and the issues behind this outburst on the Right in America had little if anything in common with the ones that had formerly animated the Left (and that lived on in various disguises and mutations such as bilingualism and multiculturalism). To my sorrow and dismay, however, the end result was uncomfortably similar in a disheartening number of respects.
What to do? The truth is that I encountered a stiff inner resistance to buckling on my slightly rusted armor for yet another campaign: "Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?" Edmund Wilson, commenting in his critical classic of the 1930s, Axel's Castle, on that very line from T. S. Eliot's great poem "Ash Wednesday," said that it made him "a little tired at hearing Eliot, [then] only in his early forties, present himself as an 'agéd eagle' who asks why he should make the effort to stretch his wings." But when those words of Eliot popped into my own head, I was already pushing seventy, and it made me a little tired to think of going back into combat over a phenomenon that I had fondly imagined I would never have to deal with again, and certainly not on the Right. Unable, however, to help myself, back I went anyway. Fortunately for my tattered ensign, this new round had a very much shorter duration than the first and did not (I hope!) leave me, as its predecessor had, with a new set of ex-friends.
Another stroke of good luck from my point of view was that I did not feel the same obligation to open up a second front by replaying the struggle against the latest wave of European anti-Americanism. An older version had occupied me as a young student in England nearly a half-century earlier, when an even more virulent resentment over the predominance of American power in the aftermath of the Second World War had become pervasive throughout Europe. But I was living in America now, I no longer visited Europe much, and this time I was more than content to let that particular cup pass from my lips.
Yet the resurrection of anti-Americanism on the Right in America itself also turned out, perversely, to be a stroke of luck. From my point of view, it was (if I may be permitted a small sacrilege) a felix culpa on the part of the Right, in that my being summoned from the reserves into active duty, and having to defend this country once more, served to remind me of why I loved it so much. In addition, it refreshed my sense of why (unlike, say, England or France) America was always being denigrated and defamed. And it also helped me realize why merely rebutting these attacks in a polemical mode, as I had spent much of my adult life doing, was not enough. Beyond being defended by a counterattack against its assailants and an exposure of their misrepresentations and slanders, America deserved to be glorified with a full throat and a whole heart.
That is exactly what I want to do here through telling and with only as much polemic as is needed (again a line from T. S. Eliot pops into my mind) "to swell a progress, start a scene or two," or set a context the story of how and why my love affair with America developed, how it ran into a rough patch, and how it then emerged with all doubts stilled and reservations removed, leaving me uncharacteristically full of optimism and good cheer. America, according to some who have preceded me in their attitude toward it, is "God's country." This is, as the pages that follow will attest, a judgment with which I have no inclination whatsoever to disagree.
Copyright © 2000 by Norman Podhoretz
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