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Rudy Giuliani and the ‘love it or leave it’ view of America

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks in New York in May 2014.  (John Minchillo/AP)

President Obama, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani declared at an event this week, doesn't love America. He then refined the claim. "The reality is, from all that I can see of this president — all that I've heard of him — he apologizes for America, he criticizes America," Giuliani said. "This is an American president I've never seen before."

Slate's Jamelle Bouie walked through the validity of that last point. Bouie notes that Obama, unlike most presidents, speaks in nuanced ways about what makes this country great, and to address the ways in which it has failed to live up to its ideals. Obama apologizes for and criticizes things America has done. What Giuliani did is leapfrog to another, obviously flawed assumption: That Obama thus doesn't love his country.

There's clearly an element of Giuliani's attack which stems from Obama's political persuasion. The former mayor would almost certainly not say something similar about a Republican political leader who offered similar critiques of our past — if one were inclined to do so. But he's also echoing a very old refrain in American politics: Love it or leave it.

We reached out to linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, to get a sense of the evolution of the phrase itself. One of the earliest known usages of the expression as a patriotic slogan was a quote from a congressman in 1921. Rep. William Valle told a House immigration committee that his message to non-citizens was "love it or leave it."

Zimmer notes that the American Legion seized on the phrase as a slogan at the outset of World War II, a time when fear of German and Japanese saboteurs was rampant. A few decades later, it became a response to opponents of the Vietnam War — and served as a shorthand for the political battle line over patriotism that still exists today.

The core message of the philosophy is that certain criticism of the country is unwelcome. But what kind of criticism? In Oklahoma this week, for example, a state legislative committee voted to block AP U.S. History courses in high school. A sponsor of the bill explained one of his objections to the curriculum: It doesn't embrace the gauzily defined idea of American exceptionalism. This wasn't the only objection, mind you, but it was a key one: The curriculum doesn't love America enough, so Oklahoma wants to leave it.

There are obvious ways in which America is exceptional. Our Constitution and the rights it stipulates are unique, and that we've adhered to it for two-plus largely peaceful centuries is remarkable. Our geography is exceptional, bounded by oceans and neighboring two friendly states. Our history is exceptional, with waves of immigrants who cobbled together a country. But the political line of "American exceptionalism" is largely subjective. And so is any attempt to declare a critique of the country as not loving it.

Giuliani, for example, opposes what the United States is doing on foreign policy. That's a critique. It's safe to assume that he takes issue with past practices of the government and past legislation, particularly under this administration. He no doubt opposes our legacy of slavery and segregation. Where's the line that separates regret or criticism from not loving the country?

The Post's Chris Mooney wrote a book (prior to his Post days) looking at the psychological differences that are correlated with political identity. Liberals, he said in an interview with Britannica.com, "seem to be more open to new experiences, to trying new things, and more tolerant of ambiguity, uncertainty, nuance and change." Conservatives are less likely to embrace nuance, but are "more conscientious, meaning they appreciate order and structure in their lives." A "love it or leave it" philosophy would, in that framework, appeal more to conservatives than "love it, but acknowledge and debate the ways in which America has erred."

Of course, Barack Obama is no ordinary American. His role is to lead the country, meaning that his words carry more weight (and bear more scrutiny) than those of an AP History textbook. Giuliani's criticism was more personal and more crass than that, but a generous interpretation of his comments might suggest that he was expecting more from our president.

Not "love it or leave it." But perhaps: "Love it publicly or don't lead it." It's the sort of distinction that's worth debating — say, in a classroom.

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