Friday, July 17, 2009

SUMMER REPEAT: The Endless Adolescence of Joel Stein

I first became aware of Joel Stein after his now-infamous column "Warriors and Wusses" was published back in 2006. It caused quite a stir at the time, because Joel wrote that not only did he oppose the War in Iraq, he also didn't support the troops:

I know this is all easy to say for a guy who grew up with money, did well in school and hasn't so much as served on jury duty for his country. But it's really not that easy to say because anyone remotely affiliated with the military could easily beat me up, and I'm listed in the phone book.

I'm not advocating that we spit on returning veterans like they did after the Vietnam War, but we shouldn't be celebrating people for doing something we don't think was a good idea. All I'm asking is that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return. But, please, no parades.

Seriously, the traffic is insufferable.
The sentiment itself bothered a lot of people. Some of us were also troubled by his glib, flippant tone. That kind of snarkiness may be perfect for a scathing review of a television show like Bonekickers, but in a Los Angeles Times column about those who voluntarily risk their lives to serve their country?

A reasonable person could make a reasonable argument that maybe it is, in fact, hypocritical to oppose the Iraq War and then claim to "support the troops." I probably wouldn't agree with that person, but I could at least respect the attempt, and maybe even the position, depending on the reasoning behind it. Stein, however, seemed more determined to prove that he could craft a joke for every paragraph than he was to actually make that case. Not that he's without empathy for the troops, of course:
I'm sure I'd like the troops. They seem gutsy, young and up for anything. If you're wandering into a recruiter's office and signing up for eight years of unknown danger, I want to hang with you in Vegas.
Whether the gusty, young, and up for anything troops would want to hang with Joel was never addressed, but I suspect most of them might pass. They understand the difference between a rough night outside the Green Zone and a rough night in Vegas better than Joel—or I—ever will. And they might be a bit skeptical about hanging with someone who also thinks they're "willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse."

I came away thinking that Joel Stein was a probably decent guy at heart, but also someone who never outgrew his too-smart-for-his-own-good adolescent phase, that time when you absolutely know, without a doubt, that the book you just read has given you an understanding all those people who have actually been there and done that somehow lack.

Basically, I found myself agreeing with the first line of Joel's bio on his homepage:
Joel Stein is desperate for attention.
After that column, I lived a relatively Stein-free couple of years. I had stopped reading the LA Times well before "Warriors and Wusses," so his weekly columns generally escaped my attention. I can't say he even crossed my mind much, either, unless he popped up on one of those VH1 I Love The Which Decade Are We Doing Now? nostalgia-fests. And even then, all I ever really thought was how much funnier Michael Ian Black was in comparison.

Joel recently caught my eye again, though, with his column "Republicans Are Blinded By Love":
I don't love America. That's what conservatives are always telling liberals like me. Their love, they insist, is truer, deeper and more complete. Then liberals, like all people who are accused of not loving something, stammer, get defensive and try to have sex with America even though America will then accuse us of wanting it for its body and not its soul. When America gets like that, there's no winning.
Are we paying attention yet? Because if we're not, Joel might have to tell us how America always complains that he never takes the time to really get her in the mood.
But I've come to believe conservatives are right. They do love America more. Sure, we liberals claim that our love is deeper because we seek to improve the United States by pointing out its flaws. But calling your wife fat isn't love. 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. I'm more in "like" with my country.
If I were hanging with Joel in Vegas, I'd bet it all on Stein-Has-No-Children.

Neither do I, true. But while nearly all the parents I know would gladly die for their child, like Joel says, the love that those same parents feel doesn't blind them to their child's flaws. In fact, they love their child in spite of those flaws, which is exactly the way so many conservatives and, yes, even liberals feel about this country. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval. That's a distinction many adolescents have trouble grasping, however.
Fox News' Sean Hannity loves this country so much, he did an entire episode of "Hannity's America" titled "The Greatest Nation on Earth." In that one hour he said, several times, "the U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth." One of the surest signs of love is it makes you talk stupid.
Joel Stein must be in love a lot. And all those American liberals I know who would agree with Sean Hannity on this—and only on this—must be talking stupid, too.
Conservatives feel personally blessed to have been born in the only country worth living in. I, on the other hand, just feel lucky to have grown up in a wealthy democracy. If it had been Australia, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Israel or one of those Scandinavian countries with more relaxed attitudes toward sex, that would have been fine with me too.
Sorry, America. Joel's just not that into you.

I understand the appeal of Joel's post-nationalist, "Citizen of the World" ideal. In my younger days, I even bought into it myself. And he does at least limit his range to "wealthy" democracies. No young, still-struggling, Eastern European democracy for Joel. But the United States is not Canada (as my Canadian wife keeps reminding me), and Canada is not Germany, and Germany is not Sweden. Maybe Joel thinks its impolite to express a preference among those countries, or maybe he really, truly doesn't have one.

If you were born a citizen of a Western, liberal (small-"ell") democracy, or managed to gain residency there, then I agree, you've won life's lottery. But if you were born a citizen of the United States, or managed to gain residency here, then you've also won the Mega-Ball Power Number. And that's hardly a "conservative" attitude, unless the world outside our borders is bursting with "conservatives" willing to do whatever it takes, legally or illegally, and even risk their lives to make their way to America as opposed to, say, Luxembourg.
When a Democrat loses the presidential race, real lefties talk a lot about moving to Canada. When Republicans lose, they don't do that. Though, to be fair, they don't have a lot of nearby conservative options. Not even Hannity is a committed enough conservative to yell, "If Obama wins, I'm moving to Singapore."
Or, Republicans have an attachment to this country that runs deeper than "like," so they don't feel the desire to run away from home because an election doesn't go their way. But again, this is hardly a "conservative" attitude, which makes me think Joel needs to start hanging out with a better class of liberal, even if the "real lefties" might stop inviting him to all the really good parties.
This doesn't mean I'm not fascinated by American history, impressed by our Constitution or don't appreciate our optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, I love everything Hannity listed on his TV special other than Madonna. But there are plenty of things I don't like about America: our foreign policy, our religious fundamentalism, our provincialism, our intellectual laziness, our acceptance of sweat suits in public.
Sweat suits in public? I guess Joel has never seen a German tourist in Miami. Or maybe he has, and that's why he didn't actually include Germany by name in his list of potentially "OK With Me" homelands. And "intellectual laziness" is just too easy a target.

I've disagreed with American foreign policy many times as well, though I doubt Joel and I would agree on our disagreements. I also doubt that our definitions of "religious fundamentalism" are the same. And I've come to realize that our supposed "provincialism" has often contained more wisdom than the supposedly sophisticated cosmopolitanism that it's compared to so frequently, and so unfavorably.

It's an imperfect world, Joel, and as long as America is inhabited and governed by imperfect people, our country will also have plenty of things to irk us both. But like the parents of a child who tries but often stumbles, I don't demand perfection from my country as a condition for my love.

Unlike an adolescent, who so often demands an impossible perfection from his parents. And who dreams of living with that other family, where the mom and dad seem so much cooler and less embarrassing.
When I ran the idea that liberals don't love America as much as conservatives by talk-show host Glenn Beck, who will move from CNN Headline News to Fox News next month, he totally agreed with me, which is precisely why I called him. "It's absolutely true, deep love. As a parent loves a child," he said. "But I think liberals laugh that off, the way the rest of the country laughs off the love Texans have for their state. Texans don't think, 'Oklahoma, you suck.' Well, yes they do—but they don't think other states suck. They just have a love for the republic of Texas. I don't have disdain for other countries. Well, except for France."
Glenn Beck gets it. And like Michael Ian Black, he's also much funnier in comparison.
I asked Beck why Democrats rarely share his overwhelming sense of American exceptionalism and Francophobia. "I think it's because in the late 1800s up until the 1930s, the progressive movement started to think the European ideals are pretty good, that it's one big world," he said. "Well, it's not. If you look at all the countries like people, there are differences between people. And I happen to like this person the best." When I look at the countries like people, I love Sweden the best.
Sorry, Sweden. But Joel only wants you for that relaxed attitude about your body.
I accused Beck of loving America just out of birthplace convenience, which is kind of like loving the girl who happens to sit in front of you in homeroom. "If I were born in Great Britain and read about Britain and America, I'd love the values and principles and the men who founded this country," he said. "I love that we crossed these mountains and didn't know what was on the other side. I love that the Pilgrims didn't want to come here, but they came here because they felt prompted to by God. There's always been a spirit of adventure and awe in this land. And I don't think any other country has that." Beck, it seemed, loves America the same way little boys love camping.
And all those Cubans trying to reach America by crossing the Florida Straits in homemade rafts were actually, it seems, just looking for a macho afternoon of kayaking adventure.
Despite Beck's rationalization, 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.
Despite Joel's rationalization, I still think this "Citizen of the Wealthy Democracies" can't, or won't, make distinctions and judgments for the same tribalistic reasons as everyone else in the group that he belongs to. And Joel does belong to a group. These are the people who are sure that every religion contains truth (even if that's generally thought to be "not much"), that no country is really any better than any other, that John McCain was the only good Republican (at least until he had a real shot at becoming president), and that conservatives have a hardy subspecies of red-white-and-blue head lice.

Well then. Did I use as unfairly broad a brush as Joel?

Truth be told, I once thought all that as well. This kind of equivalence and objectivity is a fragile thing, though. It's hard to keep that such intellectual diversity intact unless you surround yourself with like-minded people. Because the minute you start thinking that someone on the other side might not be a caricature and might actually have a point, then you start thinking that someone on your own side might actually not have a point. And that leads to making distinctions, which then leads to making judgments, and before you know it, you've gone from being 23 years old and thinking that America is the root of all evil in the world to being 43 and realizing just how blessed you actually are to have spent your life a country that let you get all that out of your system while still giving you such an incredible life. And that few countries in this world, even among the "wealthy democracies," would have given you the same, or all the other opportunities and freedoms that you've enjoyed.

And then you find yourself loving this country, despite its flaws. And maybe even thinking that among all the other nations of the world, it actually is unique in some very important ways. And that those ways aren't necessarily bad, either.
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. And, as I figured out shortly after meeting my wife, that is no way to love.
Poor Joel. Married, successful, and living in the wealthiest democracy in the history of our world, and yet still so troubled and unhappy. Because America has remained rigidly unchanging in its ideas and system since 1776, others can't see the nuances he does and actually prefer the dangerous extremism of the original Star Wars trilogy ("Do, or do not. There is no try.") to the subtle insights of Episodes One through Three ("Only a Sith deals in absolutes!"), and the grass might actually be greener in Amsterdam.

I have hope for Joel, though. And I'm pulling for him. Because as I figured out myself after far too many years, perpetual adolescence is no way to live.

Or love.