WASHINGTON — Maybe the best reason to love the United States is that it’s a place where people are free not to love it.
In our country, criticism is constant, disagreement is perpetual, our understanding of our own history is constantly challenged. Every generation finds something — often many things — that previous generations left in a state of terrible disrepair.
Advertising’s “new and improved” trope speaks to a restless place where things are never good enough. We’re the land of new births of freedom, New Deals and New Frontiers.
We embrace patriotic symbols with such ferocity that our protests are frequently organized around them. Athletes who take a knee during our national anthem are wrongly described as disrespectful. On the contrary: They are taking the country at its word. If we’re going to sing that we’re “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we ought to be that place.
So it should be no surprise that we have complicated attitudes toward our founders. We can revere them for having established an extraordinary constitutional republic that grew, after much struggle and bloodshed, into something closer to a democracy. And we can also call out those among them who were slaveholders and note — it’s one of many disturbing facts — that the Constitution they wrote counted enslaved Black Americans as merely three-fifths of a person.
There is a long history, encompassing Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., of invoking our founders’ aspirations to criticize them — and all of us since — for failing to deliver on their ringing assertion that “all men are created equal.”
“It is obvious today,” King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Then he added: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
That refusal to give up is at once an act of protest and an act of patriotism. We continue to demand that promissory note’s redemption.
I should pause here to thank Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal for writing a column last week with the provocative headline: “Progressives Disdain America but Love Being Free to Do So.”
These reflections are inspired by two questions he asked those of us on the left: “Is there anything that would actually make them love this country?” And: “Do they understand why so many people — not only in America — admire it?”
I hope Baker enjoyed celebrating the Fourth of July weekend in the knowledge that progressives love this country for many reasons, not the least being the freedom embodied in the second half of his headline.
Progressives admire our country, too. Our criticisms of its failures, past and present, are part of a long, productive and morally grounded tradition of protest.
If Baker wants a glimpse of what progressive patriotism looks like, he might consult the speech President Barack Obama gave in Selma, Ala., in 2015, honoring the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights.
“America,” Obama said, is “not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.”
Progressives love our country so much that we know it’s strong enough to acknowledge how racism, nativism, religious prejudice and other forms of injustice and intolerance are embedded in our nation’s story.
True love can never mean pretending that the object of your affections is perfect, as Baker acknowledges. It means believing that the person or country you revere is capable of transformation — and having confidence that school children won’t love their country any less if they’re taught honestly about its flaws, its failures and even its grave sins.
In the process, they’ll also learn about the courageous Americans who rose up to right wrongs, to battle smugness, to challenge oppression and to include everyone in the magnificent “We” that opens our Constitution.
Accepting that the United States embodies a never-ending argument might encourage us to treat each other a trifle more respectfully, to listen at least a little, and to acknowledge that it’s usually critics and dissenters who move us to take our country’s promises seriously.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: