December 28, 2008

On Love and Confidence

Justin Katz

Perhaps it's his lack of children that enables liberal columnist Joel Stein so succinctly to enunciate one of the more damaging failures of philosophy in modern culture:

True love is the blind belief that your child is the smartest, cutest, most charming person in the world, one you would gladly die for.

The ineluctable consequence of a belief that "true love" entails certainty in its object's perfection is the conclusion that one does not love that object when flaws inevitably emerge. Can it be doubted that this is a common pathology in our era? Irresponsible fathers leave their children because they prove difficult. Wives leave their husbands because they can't maintain that alluring blend of mystery and security. And Joel Stein is only "in 'like' with [his] country" because its people are flawed.

That said, I'll acknowledge that love "because it's mine" — what Stein calls "tribalism" — is intellectually unsatisfying and, indeed, stinks of self deception. One should no more love based on happenstance than one should hate based on coincidence. The lingering "what if" of those bases for such strong emotions can fester and corrupt.

No, love — whether of child, spouse, or country — must be a matter of spark and decision. The spark is of inspiration — the comprehension of something in the other that rests in the palms like a precious gem — and the decision is to commit to intertwinement — even when beauty fades and quirks begin to rankle, even when the child rebels and the nation falls into the hands of a political enemy, even when the gem no longer gleams from beneath layers of muck. The failure of such love is less evidence that the object is not worthy of being loved than an indication that the erstwhile lover is incapable of loving.

Thus it is that Stein pats himself on the back for his intellectual complexity, even as he exhibits simplicity of self-comprehension:

... I still think conservatives love America for the same tribalistic reasons people love whatever groups they belong to. These are the people who are sure Christianity is the only right religion, that America is the best country, that the Republicans have the only good candidates, that gays have cooties.

I wish I felt such certainty. Sure, it makes life less interesting and nuanced, and absolute conviction can lead to dangerous extremism, but I suspect it makes people happier. I'll never experience the joy of Hannity-level patriotism. I'm the type who always wonders if some other idea or place or system is better and I'm missing out.

Although his claim is of a native circumspection, Stein is apparently very certain that it is false to claim Christianity as "the only right religion" and that it is simplistic to rank America as "the best country" (leave the two lapses into partisan rhetoric aside). It is difficult to take Stein at his word, therefore, that he "wonders" whether something better exists; there aren't really any mystery countries out there, after all. His reader can infer with confidence, from Stein's writing and his identified ideology, that he already knows what idea and system would be better and will love the place that most closely approximates his utopia.

Joel is not wrong that he cannot love his country as others do, because a requirement of love's commitment is acceptance, to the point of a willingness to change rather than impose. After the spark and the decision comes growth, of the sort that lattice enables in vines.

Stein ends his column with a statement of recognition that he cannot love his country as he professes to love his wife. Presumably he's made a deliberate attempt not to "always wonder" whether he isn't missing out on someone better. If I were to advise the lady, though, I'd suggest that she see if she can't bring her hubby around to a less abashed patriotism, perhaps beginning with a flag lapel pin as a St. Valentine's Day gift.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I had similar thoughts about Joel Stein's column when I read it this morning; could he have been any more condescending? But equally condescending is your suggestion that such ideas are enabled by the lack of children.

Posted by: mikeinRI at December 28, 2008 1:38 PM

Equally condescending? Hm.

I made that statement with reference to a particular individual who ended his column by admitting that experience with his wife persuaded him that his emotional approach to his country doesn't work when it comes to love. It doesn't strike me as controversial at all to suggest that such a man might learn a deeper understanding of love by having children.

In other words, I'm most definitely not saying that love is unknowable by the childless. I'd maintain, though, that there is a relationship between concepts of love and falling fertility in the West.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 28, 2008 1:43 PM

Ok, "equally" was a bit over the top. And I understand your point. I guess I wonder why you began your post by suggesting his lack of children "enables" his opinions, as though it's to be expected. Just as there are those with children who equate love with perfection, there are those without children who do not. But after reading your response, and post again, it appears we agree. So is it fair to connect his inability to love his country because of its flaws to the fact that he has no children?

Posted by: mikeinRI at December 28, 2008 2:23 PM

To the degree to which having children could help him to understand the form of love that allows for patriotism without tribalism. Having children certainly changed my perspective in similar ways — shallow, callous man that I was, prior.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 28, 2008 2:43 PM

Well,maybe Mr.Stein can go somewhere to find the better society,except the first time he squeaks about how bad the place he's living in is,they may just attach a joy buzzer to his gonads.

Posted by: joe bernstein at December 28, 2008 8:55 PM

Stein's column was a decent bit of snark, but snark is a species of intellectual fast food: you kind of appreciate it as it's going down but it sits leaden in your craw long after you begin to wish you could simply flush it away.

Posted by: Patrick Carroll at December 28, 2008 9:58 PM

Joel Stein says he just feels lucky to live in a wealthy democracy, but any wealthy democracy would do.

But Stein should ask this: Considering how everyone on Earth has the right to live in free democracies, in which wealth, progress and peace just happen to be more likely than in dictatorships, maybe he should give a few extra points to the nation that has done more than any other to defend and spread democracy.

Now which nation would that be?

No, you don't have to love any nation as you would a spouse. But occasionally, you might take notice of which nation does most of the hard and heroic work of liberation.

Posted by: Frank Warner at December 28, 2008 10:05 PM

Mr. Stein seems to think that tolerance of other faiths requires one to disbelieve one's own faith.
That's a serious fallacy that seems to have infected our intellectual elite to the extent that we have made the First Amendment the legal basis for intolerance of all religion in public life.

Posted by: AST at December 28, 2008 10:06 PM

Joel Stein is paid to be glib. That's what he does. He makes glib arguments that are often offensive to people who take the object of his glibness seriously.

Arguing against Stein's glibness is like attempting to prove that the International House of Pancakes isn't actually a transnational pancake institution.

It's a trap, a device that he uses to belittle both his ideological adversaries and the ideals they defend.

Posted by: Max at December 28, 2008 10:15 PM

I know a number of men and women who have children and who openly express to me their hatred for the USA - unless a Democrat is in the White House. These parents think that as a teacher I share their political views, and I have a strong enough instinct of self-preservation that I do not disabuse them of that notion. Being a non-liberal in the education profession is a little like being underground in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, except that at the present time all I can lose is my job. There are certain Undeniable Truths that must not ever be questioned.

A number of things that I have noticed about these parents is their limited experience outside their own bubble, absolute close-mindedness, and (dare I say it?) tribalism, which might cause Stein’s head to explode if he ever considered them for even a fleeting moment.

Posted by: Mwalimu Daudi at December 28, 2008 10:15 PM

"These are the people who are sure Christianity is the only right religion, that America is the best country, that the Republicans have the only good candidates, that gays have cooties."

If he can say that, how would it be wrong of me to say that Stein is of the people who think Pol Pot was basically good-intentioned, but just a bit aggresive in his methods of pursuasion?

Both assertions are nothing but hyperbolic over-generalizations that are designed to equate their targets with extremes with which they are only distantly related. I'll even admit that my example is worse - it doesn't change the validity of the observation.

Posted by: sherlock at December 28, 2008 10:17 PM

Stein claims to be "like" with America, but he demonstrates that he likes an impossible ideal that never was and can never be. Without the rough edges that irritate Stein, America could never be the economic giant that can afford to defend the counties he likes better. Most other prosperous democratic countries can afford their expensive social spending because they skimp on defense, secure in the knowledge that the US will defend them in a crisis.

Stein wants unicorns and universal peace. He thinks that since he can imagine them, only right wing greed is preventing their appearance. He isn't willing to understand that if they were possible, it would take many years of hard work and failure to develop them. He wants an imaginary America in an imaginary world. Which, I fear, is the central tenet of liberalism.

Posted by: Ken Hahn at December 28, 2008 10:26 PM

Stein says:

"I still think conservatives love America for the same tribalistic reasons people love whatever groups they belong to. These are the people who are sure Christianity is the only right religion, that America is the best country, that the Republicans have the only good candidates, that gays have cooties."

I'll address each of his statements in turn:

1. Stein is either unable or unwilling to acknowledge he's part of a "tribe" as well. Indeed he can't...because to do so would be the proverbial "torpedo below the waterline" for his Weltanschauung.

2. Well, duh. Many people do believe that Christianity is the "best religion" because, among other things, it was in Christendom that modern democracy and representative republicanism were conceived and developed. Just ask the Muslims if you don't believe me.

3. It is. Question for Stein: If your Ashkenazim ancestors didn't think America was the best country in the world, why aren't you a Polish dirt-farmer?

4. Wrong. Republicans don't always think we have good candidates (John McCain, anyone?). However, we do think we have BETTER candidates. There's a world of difference between the two.

5. If Joel "President of His 6th Grade Class" Stein is referring to sexually-transmitted diseases as "cooties," then, yeah, to a fair extent 30 years of medical evidence says he's right.

Posted by: MarkJ at December 28, 2008 11:37 PM

2 things for Mr Stein:

1) whats wrong with tribalism? Personally, if I didn't think my "tribe" was better than yours, I would have to question my participation in it, and why I didn't leave to become a member of the other tribe. And don't try and sell me that "to make things better" crap. Not buying.

2) children will definitely change the way you examine love, your relationships, your life, and entire philososphy. It brings into being the purest most perfect example of unconditional love there can be--to love something simply because it exists. The full realization of that completely blew me away and changed me inside and out. Never been the same, and grateful for it.

Posted by: MikeW at December 29, 2008 1:59 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Important note: The text "http:" cannot appear anywhere in your comment.