For the umpteenth time, I recently heard someone say, “America: love it or it leave it!” Actually, the way the guy phrased it was “If you hate America, get the hell out!” but the message was the same. My exhaustion with these types of statements compels me to conduct a brief rhetorical analysis illustrating why they are deeply flawed and quintessentially anti-American.
First, in my experience, when a person accuses someone of “hating” America, what they are usually saying is “questioning and resisting the status quo of our nation is wrong.” Not surprisingly, this accusation typically comes from people who benefit from said status quo. The depth of irony here is immense. Our nation is founded upon resistance to policies and practices its citizens have felt are oppressive and in need of reform. Was it “hating America” when colonists resisted British rule and destroyed property during the Boston Tea Party? Was it “hating America” when women picketed the White House in 1917 demanding their right to vote and, as a result, were imprisoned? Was taking up arms in resistance to the status quo of owning other human beings “hating America”? Was it “hating America” when citizens protested what they saw as an unjust war in Vietnam? Was it “hating America” when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” of the bus to a white man when the “white section” was at max capacity? Was it “hating America” when police officer John J. Flood led eleven separate strikes throughout the 1970s toward reform of the police system? All these historical instances of resistance and reform were, of course, viewed as anti-American by a percentage of the population. I’d bet my house that some form of the statement “if you don’t like it here, get the hell out!” was spoken frequently in each of these contexts. Yet, can you imagine what our nation would look like without those who resisted the status quo, those who refused to be labeled as anti-American because they rejected what they saw as critical flaws in the system?
Am I stating that all forms of resistance are on point in terms of social justice and political health and that efforts toward reform are always ethically conducted? Am I arguing that all criticism of the system is productive and intended to generate change? Of course not on both counts. There are groups and movements that make me want to vomit. Likewise, there are plenty of people who constantly complain while taking advantage of the very system they criticize. I am stating, however, that our nation is built upon the concept of the right to question and change the system and the idea that these actions equate “hating” America is misguided.
Let’s turn now to the phrase “America: love it or leave it.” To position that “loving America” requires acceptance of political, environmental, socioeconomic, and public-health policies is an egregious error. Those who care enough to devote their time and risk personal safety in order to change what they see as failures in the system are demonstrating love for our nation. To give an analogy, my life work has become health care reform. Does this mean that I don’t have love for our health care system and should “get the hell out” because I want to see changes take place? The opposite is the case. It is because of the compassionate care my family has received from a number of nurses and physicians that I want to help foster that approach to medicine as opposed to the calloused treatment all of us have endured at some point in a medical context. My efforts toward reform demonstrate that I care. Furthermore, even if I did despise our health care system, I do not have the resources to seek alternative care.
This brings me to my final point. The very notion of “leave it” comes from an entitled position. Does the single mother working at Walmart have the ability to leave the U.S. if she is disgruntled with our system? Along these lines, I would say most American citizens do not have the resources to relocate internationally. I spent five years living abroad in several locations, and I can tell you that the Americans I met came from places of privilege in terms of education, specialized training, and economic resources. Furthermore, even if people do have the ability to uproot from the U.S., is it fair to demand that someone leave their family, friends, and land in which they were raised because they are unhappy with aspects of our nation?
In the end and regardless of one’s political orientation, making statements like “If you hate America, get the hell out” and “America: love it or leave it” are quintessentially anti-American. We all have a right, and I’d even say responsibility, to critically examine our system and push for reform when practices and policies feel unethical, untenable, and unsustainable. And, we have a right to do so without being called unpatriotic and told to leave our home country.
Endnote 1: My critique of “hating America” is not intended to imply that there are not people who do truly hate America. For instance, while living abroad, I encountered true hatred of our nation from certain groups of people, and I know there are people with this sentiment in the U.S. as well. However, I have yet to hear the expression, “If you hate America, get the hell out!” spoken to someone fitting this category.
Endnote 2: I believe those who slandered Vietnam soldiers and blamed them for the war were behaving in an anti-American manner. Regardless of one’s opinion on whether or not we should have been there, the soldiers were doing their duty and enduring incredible trauma as a result.