AS Memorial Day approaches, I've been thinking about ''love of country,'' and I've concluded that it's not as simple a matter as it usually is presumed to be.
A well-waved flag may be easy to find, but not real love of country. The political right's love of country tends to be less than it appears to be, for it is often achieved by a kind of definitional sleight of hand: It creates an idealized ''America'' suitable for patriotic speeches and for unqualified love, and then regards every deviation from that image as un-American. Certain groups of people are identified as embodying this country, and those who are not like them are not ''real Americans.''
These days the harshest critics of American society are on the right. They decry the crime and violence, the groups clamoring for their own distinct identities, and the libertine pursuit of happiness without constraint by moral authority. But none of this is seen as reflecting on the America they love -- as if America could be understood without reference to the deep-seated forces that engendered all these aspects of contemporary American life.
Perhaps real love of America -- of the whole seething organism of American society unfolding through history -- is no more likely to be found on the right part of the spectrum than on the left.
If America might feel less than nourished by the hollow love of many of her supposedly loyal sons on the right, neither does she get much wholehearted love from many of her rebellious children on the left.
People like me -- from what might be called the progressive countercultural side of the American conversation -- dwell at length on the defects of our nation. We at least do America the service of seeing the nation in more of its fullness and moral complexity, perceiving its defects: the opportunistic theft of this land and the subsequent breaking of the continent as if it were a wild bronco; the racist rationalizations for exploitation; the gloss of hypocrisy on the swagger of an imperial power. We see these as dark parts of the heart of America. We then find it difficult to open our hearts and give fully of love to the country that sustains us.
If the failure of the right is an inability to integrate good and evil into a whole image of the beloved, the failure of the left is an inability to open hearts in love despite the perception of imperfections.
Real love is no small achievement, whether in our families or in our relationship with our country. As all things human are admixtures of good and evil, we are challenged -- if we are to love -- to rise above the easy course of loving only what we like. We can fail to meet that challenge either by creating and worshiping a fiction of perfection, or by withholding our devotion from what fails to achieve the perfection we desire.
Real love of country seems to me a wonderful thing. For one thing, it sustains one's heart to feel good about who we are as a people, how we got here, and what we are about together. For another, the work of making America the best it can be is most likely to be done by those who, while seeing its problems clearly, love it best. But to really love America, many of us on the right and left still have growing to do.