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On criticizing one's country

"To criticize one's country," said Sen. Fulbright, "is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing." Or, as Carl Schurz said: "My country, right or wrong! When right, to be kept right. If wrong, to be put right."

A little bit of disloyalty to a party line may open up space for a multitude of perspectives and opinions. Michael Eric Dyson:

Whether his take on race is viewed as less or more helpful than mine should be judged, but not by reference to an unchanging, eternal idea of Blackness that is stuck in the Black sky as a North Star to shed light on our doings as a people....It [the term "post-Black"] doesn't mean we're over Blackness; it means we're over our narrow understanding of what Black means. Post-Blackness has little patience for racial patriotism, racial fundamentalism and racial policing. Racial patriotism builds on the parallel between loyalty to the race and loyalty to the nation. Loyalty isn't the problem, but rather the sort of racial fidelity that often flies under the banner of Blackness. Black folk offered the nation a great gift by proving you are most loyal to your country when you're willing to accent its virtues and criticize its failures. Too often racial patriots are just as blind as other American patriots: my country right or wrong becomes my race right or wrong, and even more disturbing, racial patriots often identify their views of Blackness with the only acceptable views of Blackness, and are willing to railroad or expel all others who disagree.

Similarly, Eddie Vedder:

As a touring musician, I would play thirty places in Europe in five weeks and not just pass through or see the sights but actually have an exchange with people. Everything I probably missed out on by not going to college as far as geography, history, world social studies and religion I feel like I've kind of made up for by just being alert on tour. That puts you in a sensitive place because you come back to the United States and you're happy to be back, but at the same time you feel like sharing what you've seen with other people. You want to say, you know, "I've seen some examples where things work a little better as far as healthcare, gun control, the modern-day prison system, the war on drugs"—you want to be able to share that and not feel like you're being unpatriotic or extra critical.

Eric Felten wrote about political criticism as "tough love" that is sometimes mistaken as hostility:

"Republics, and liberal democracies especially, rely on mutual trust between governments and citizens to an unusual degree,' Judith Shklar observed. 'Threats to the established constitution, even when no foreign state is involved in the enterprise, are therefore perceived as attacks on every established political relationship and every social agreement.' For self-government to succeed, we have to know we can rely on one another. Which is where patriotism comes in. It is a promise, both outward and inward, that we can be counted on when it counts. Sneering at the rituals of patriotic observance may be one's right, but it does little to build trust. Those who would challenge the orthodoxies of their countries are likely to have more luck the more they are trusted, the more they make it clear their recommendations are expressions of tough love — with the emphasis on love. If dissent devolves into hatred of one's country or countrymen (as it did for State Department spy Walter Kendall Myers, who told an FBI agent posing as a Cuban spymaster, 'The trouble with this country, there's just too many North Americans...believe me, those North Americans, you don't want them.'), democracy is undermined. 'An enemy is not recognizable as a social critic; he lacks standing,' observes political philosopher Michael Walzer. 'We expect and simultaneously discount criticism from our enemies.'

Some critics, especially by virtue of their minoritized identities, risk being labeled as enemies of the state. Arundhati Roy:

Recently, those who have criticised the actions of the US government (myself included) have been called "anti-American". Anti-Americanism is in the process of being consecrated into an ideology. The term is usually used by the American establishment to discredit and, not falsely - but shall we say inaccurately — define its critics. Once someone is branded anti-American, the chances are that he or she will be judged before they're heard and the argument will be lost in the welter of bruised national pride. What does the term mean? That you're anti-jazz? Or that you're opposed to free speech? That you don't delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean you don't admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam? Does it mean that you hate all Americans? * * * To call someone anti-American, indeed, to be anti-American, is not just racist, it's a failure of the imagination. An inability to see the world in terms other than those that the establishment has set out for you: If you don't love us, you hate us. If you're not good, you're evil. If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists.

Religious dogma can cause people to close themselves off to criticism, and "any government that imagines it has a divine warrant will perforce deal with its critics as if they were profane and thus illegitimate by definition," Christopher Hitchens wrote, warning that we can see "what happens to a state or society that forbids itself the secular catharsis of self-criticism."

"All cultures, whether Arab, Asian, or Western," wrote Tariq Ramadan, "require a critical and self-critical mind apt to assess habits in light of principles because habits often erode or blur principles. One should therefore be both open and critical: always remain curious and seek what is beautiful and good, and always remain cautiously alert in assessing what is negative and unfair."

That "self-critical mind" of which Ramadan speaks is crucial, too. After all, as James Albert Pike put it: "If a person lacks self-acceptance, he can't live with himself; if he lacks self-criticism, others can't live with him." Or, as Abba Poemen put it, "always to accuse" oneself — that is integrity.

An example of criticism from Jared Yates Sexton: "The United States of America, armed with its myth of American exceptionalism, has perpetrated some of the worst crimes in the history of humanity. It has subjugated the people of the world, inflicted a possibly mortal blow to the concepts of truth and human dignity, and manufactured an alternate reality that now threatens everyone and everything we purport to hold dear."


Sen. J. William Fulbright. The Arrogance of Power. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. p. 25.

Eric Felten. Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. pp. 257-258.

"Not again." Arundhati Roy. The Guardian, Friday September 27, 2002.

"Tour(é)ing Blackness" by Michael Eric Dyson. Foreword to Touré, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What it Means to Be Black Now. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, in an interview with Ann Powers, "The Power of Music," posted online December 23, 2002. Printed in The Nation, January 13, 2003.

"The Death of Theocracy." Christopher Hitchens. Newsweek. Jan. 11, 2010. p. 23.

Tariq Ramadan. What I Believe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 41.

James Albert Pike. Beyond anxiety: the Christian answer to fear, frustration, guilt, indecision, inhibition, loneliness, despair. Scribner, 1953. p. 22.

Abba Poemen, cited in Kathleen Norris. Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. p. 139.

Jared Yates Sexton. Prologue to American Rule. Dutton, 2020.


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