Can We Love a Country Even When It Falls Short?
This Independence Day, reflections on how to reckon with choosing to love a country, even as we insist that it be better.
This is a difficult time in America. From mass shootings, to the fall of Roe v. Wade, to the persistent denial of the need to do something about clear injustices such as racism and homophobia, our country’s faults are on full display.
These faults make it easy to feel like America is disappointing, failing. This creates challenges for our observance of Independence Day, which is supposed to be a celebration of this country. How, we may ask, can we celebrate something that has fallen so short? Is the Fourth of July just empty jingoism? How can we embrace fireworks and parties with so much going wrong with the object of these festivities? Today’s Note is an attempt to organize my thoughts about these difficult questions. It is a personal reflection on all that is wrong with the country in the present moment, and an effort to balance these wrongs with what has been, and may still be, right with it. I realize that even suggesting America may have positive qualities may strike some as inappropriate in the current context. Yet creating a better world means keeping sight of the good wherever it is to be found, towards the goal of maximizing its influence. We cannot do this if we do not make an effort to look for it. This Note is my attempt to do so.
James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This statement has always resonated with me. I have long admired Baldwin, even naming my most recent book The Contagion Next Time, in homage to his book, The Fire Next Time. In public health, we often find ourselves in the position of critics in relation to America. There is much to criticize. Problems such as racism, gun violence, inequality, rising authoritarianism, the rollback of Roe v. Wade, and a threadbare social safety net all rightly occupy our attention. The challenge they pose is the inheritance of all who live here. From the perspective of an immigrant, these problems take on the quality of something that I, in a sense, chose to live with. It is a choice I made for myself and for the family my spouse and I built here. As our children grow up in the midst of this country’s many problems, I am faced with the urgency of reconciling the good of America—the reasons why I opted to make it my home—with the challenges it poses to the values I hold dear, and to the task of promoting the health of populations to which I have dedicated my adult life. Building a healthier world means addressing these challenges honestly, and any honest assessment of them must admit that they are truly terrible features of our society. In public health, we engage with these challenges by contributing to a body of knowledge that helps us better understand the forces that make us unhealthy, and by pursuing an activist approach to making a difference for the communities we serve.
In considering this work, I come back to the motivation shared with Baldwin—a love of America which causes us to criticize this place we call home because, fundamentally, we want what is best for it. We want it to be its best. This balance of love and critique may seem like a contradiction. Yet it is not contradictory to acknowledge the shortcomings of something we love with the aim of improving it. It could be argued that it is less loving not to criticize, because this sets what we love up to fail by preventing it from becoming the best it can be. Our criticism of our country, then, comes from our desire to see it become the best possible version of itself. Our pursuit of this vision is consistent with the core goal of public health, in which we seek to create a world where all can be healthy by being able to access the resources that support health. The best version of America is one where these resources—justice, compassion, and the material basis for a healthy life—are abundant.
It is worth noting, of course, that perhaps I am writing from a place of comfort, of privilege, as one who could well have forgotten what it feels like to be truly marginalized by life in the US. Even working in public health, where it is our job to study the injustice many face, it is possible to lose sight of the extent of this injustice without direct daily experience of it. For some populations, it is easy to overlook the work we still must do in America, whereas, for others, the need for this work is all-too clear. In public health, we are aware of the conditions that shape marginalization and health gaps. This can cause us to feel, perhaps, justified in taking a harder line against America, feeling as though any love we may have for this country has been unrequited in the context of ongoing injustice.
With this in mind, I realize that in the intellectual circles in which we travel, making the case for love of country, particularly at this moment, may seem unusual. Because those of us working in public health tend to view the pursuit of justice as core to the work of creating a healthy world, the presence of so much injustice in the US can make it hard to love what seems to not always love us back. This injustice causes us to question easy assumptions about America being a good place. Yet it is precisely at such times that we must try to embrace the compassion that helps us to see not just what is bad in our society, but what has much potential for good. It is for this reason that I have spoken previously about love as the antidote to much that ails our collective well-being. I am reminded of the words of my favorite poet, W. H. Auden, who wrote “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” Baldwin, for his part, well knew what it was like for equal affection to be lacking in his relationship with America, yet he still had the capacity, through compassion-informed criticism of his country, to be “the more loving one.” His example suggests a way forward for all who have a keen sense of the injustices present in America yet would nevertheless engage with this country from a place of love, with an eye towards helping it fulfill its potential as a force for good in the world.
In finding our own way toward love of country this Independence Day, we would do well to follow the countless immigrants who have flocked, and continue to flock, to these shores. It is worth noting that, while the country has gone through its periods of self-confidence and self-doubt, of pursuing justice and of upholding an unjust status quo, of presidents good and bad, its attraction for immigrants seeking a better life has remained largely consistent. Never in recorded human history has there been such a diverse, pluralistic society spread out over such a vast landmass, with a comparatively high overall standard of living, and a commitment to the proposition—however imperfectly realized it has been—that all are created equal. These conditions make America unique in the world. There are countries that value freedom, there are countries that enjoy prosperity, and there are countries that contain vast territory, but none combine these qualities the way America does. Just as our understanding of America must reckon with its original sins—centrally, slavery and the genocide of indigenous populations—it must also take into account its many qualities that make it a beacon of hope for so many around the world.
It is perhaps because of these qualities that no other country sees anything close to the level of immigration that we see in America. The US has by far the largest foreign-born population in the world, with nearly 51 million immigrants living here. For comparison, the country with the next-highest level of immigrants is Germany, with about 16 million. When it comes to immigration, people really do vote with their feet. These votes support a vision of America as, yes, a land of opportunity. I say this as someone who had already seen much of the world when I chose to make America my home. Since then, I have been privileged to see even more of the world, while also learning more about the many injustices still present in the US. While my perspective with regard to America and the world has broadened, there is still no place I would rather call home.
How can we work to ensure America becomes a place where ever-more people can say the same? There are many ways we can and must do so. This being a Note for Independence Day, however, I will suggest how we can do so in our engagement with a core American value: freedom. It is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in American mythmaking, and one that is misused over and over. It strikes me that many of the challenges to health in this country are a consequence of a fundamental misunderstanding of what freedom can mean. Throughout much of our history, we have embraced a notion of freedom that emphasized the individual’s freedom “to”—for example, to buy guns, to smoke, and to make vast profits while evading obligations to the public good. We have done this at the expense of freedom “from”—namely, freedom from disease and preventable hazard. This has caused us to disinvest in the policies and institutions that support freedom “from.” These include a robust social safety net, commonsense gun laws, and legislation that safeguards civil equality for marginalized groups. We have, at times, embraced a freedom ”from” framework, but we have done so in fits and starts, with progress always subject to rollback. Making America better means building a durable foundation for this vision of progress, to support freedom “from” as zealously as we have supported freedom “to.” This is, of course, exactly what public health should be doing at all times—creating a country, a world, where as many people as possible are as free as possible to live a full, flourishing life, free of unnecessary poor health.
Such an effort represents a possible path forward, yet we have such a long way to go. Indeed, depending on how the scales of injustice are tipped against one, it would be easy to see all this quite differently, to see nothing lovable about America at all. There is no question that, on core issues such as race and the rights of women and LGBTQ+ populations, and on the ongoing marginalization of immigrants, the rejection of the safe haven that we could grant to so many at so little cost to us, progress in this country leaves much to be desired. It often feels like we take two steps forward, only to take one or more steps back. It is on us in public health to work to address these challenges, to advocate and agitate for the conditions that allow everyone to live healthy lives, with no one left behind.
We are fortunate that our system gives us a framework in which to do this. While that system has upheld deep injustice, it has also seen amazing change, as we have transitioned—in just 160 years—from a society that enslaved people to one that is now home to a movement to end marginalization altogether, ensuring that all groups enjoy equal access to the resources that generate health. While the time it took to see this change may seem like a long while from the perspective of the present, viewed as part of the sweep of history it is akin to a brief moment, far less than the many centuries it can otherwise take to create such change. It is our capacity for generating such change—supported by our highest ideals—that makes it worth working to make this country better. This Independence Day is a chance to recommit ourselves to this goal, towards the aim of creating the America we wish to see.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
Boston University School of Public Health
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Eric DelGizzo and Meredith Brown for their contributions to this Dean’s Note.
Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: http://www.bu.edu/sph/tag/deans-note/