America is supposed to be a democratic republic. Under such a government, free speech is essential and encouraged. The statement “America: love it or leave it,” is in conflict with many of these key American values. Rather than encourage the critique of government, which is a healthy course of action in a democracy, it attempts to silence all critical speech and maintain the status quo. A more patriotic statement would be “America: love it, or change it.”
Some people say that this statement is patriotic while others say that the exact opposite is true. Why is this so? Brian Moon wrote on this topic in "Reading" and "Reading Practices." He wrote in "Reading" that a text "can mean different things to different groups of people" (138). This happens because "different groups might read the text in different ways" (138). A text can also mean different things to different people that are in the same group. This is illustrated with the statement "America: love it or leave it."
Moon also wrote that there are three different types of reading. He labeled these "dominant readings," "oppositional readings," and "alternative readings." Dominant readings are readings of texts and events that the rulers of society expound through social institutions such as the media and the public education system. Alternative readings are readings that differ from dominant readings while not directly challenging them. Oppositional readings are readings that challenge the dominant readings. These oppositional readings may be called “resistant readings.”
An oppositional reading of “America: love it or leave it,” would be that it is an ideological statement put forth by the American elite. It reflects back on the system of beliefs which this statement supports. This statement is an attempt to shut off debate and critique of the U.S. government which might influence all aspects of American life. When someone says this they are saying something that is not patriotic. This statement goes against many American values and rights such as the right to speak freely which is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. A correct reading of this statement would be that it goes against American values and says essentially "Shut up, we do not want to hear your critique of America; if you have so many bad things to say about the country, get out." This statement is very conservative. If everyone whole-heartedly embraced the idea of leaving the United States when they disagreed about something that was being done, then this country would become more and more dominated by the power elite, which consists of large business owners, military leaders, and top government officials. The United States has many serious problems and this statement serves only to cause stagnation.
The group that uses the above reading is composed of the very liberal strata of society. This group is often open to new ideas and pushes for the United States to move forward to form a better country. This “liberal” group admits that we need to progress to a better society, while the conservative group denies the very existence of that need to progress. What the conservative group calls “reform” or “progress” means a more wealthy elite and a more pacified lower class.
The dominant reading is that "America: love it or leave it" is a patriotic statement. It is based on the assumption that America is the best country in the world and that it is beyond the need for people to voice there concerns over what they call problems with America. The individual that uses this statement is telling the person that this statement is directed at that s/he is ruining the country with unnecessary trouble making. Basically, if you are going to try to pick out problems with this country you are showing that you do not love it.
As a result of the different readings of texts, what is viewed to be appropriate by some is viewed to be inappropriate by others. For example, if one was to go to an anti-war protest with a shirt that said "America: love it or leave it" in big letters, that would most likely be viewed as inappropriate because that statement goes against the idea of trying to change government actions, which protestors embrace. Diana Hacker wrote in A Pocket Style Manual, that "it is impolite to use offensive terms such as Polack or redneck, but offensive language can take more forms" (22). In some places these terms might not be viewed as inappropriate, in others these would be viewed as outrageous. This happens because society decides what is appropriate based on the ideology that is prevalent in that group for ideology is social, it is created by society.
In "Reading Practices," Moon wrote that "reading practices are the processes and cultural assumptions which readers use in making sense of a text. Different practices applied to the same text will produce different readings. The choice of one reading over another depends upon the reader's training, which as determined by social factors such as education, cultural background, and dominant ideologies" (137). So, if one reads "America: love it or leave it" as a positive or a negative statement it depends on "the reader's training," or in other words, the reader's indoctrination. Indoctrination gives a person an ideology. Ideology is internalized, it becomes who we are, it defines how we think and live our lives. It determines what we think is right or wrong by telling us how to read texts and think about events. Ideology is internalized to such an extent that it becomes our conscience, our reality, and our lives. Society forms an ideology and the ideology makes the rules of how we understand, or "read" things. Therefore, the rules of how we read things are not the product of the individual but of the society in which we find ourselves or are most influenced by.
People apply their beliefs and their background information (which are determined by ideology) to read things. People usually do not know that they are doing this, and Moon mentions that there is an "illusion that the text has an obvious meaning" (135). Two people could argue for hours about the meaning of "America: love it or leave it." The meaning would seem obvious to each one but each would be saying something different that only seems obvious to that one.
The statement "America: love it or leave it" is an extremely dangerous one if viewed as a positive, patriotic statement about America. This attitude from so called "patriots" leads to dictatorship of the elite in the United States. Without people being critical of the government it moves farther and farther from the people. People that take the time to criticize their country want to try to solve its problems. This leads to a question of what patriotism is. Patriotism is love of one's country. Is it patriotic to sit mute and not let your voice be heard when there are problems that need to be solved? No, it is not. You can love your country unconditionally while not unconditionally approving of its actions. The patriotic relationship between the citizen and country is one of a parent who loves the child even when that child does something wrong. This unconditional love does not exclude the possibility of reprimanding that child when he or she is headed down the wrong path.
Robert Scholes wrote in "On Reading A Video Text" that "the greatest patriots of our day will be those who explore our ideology critically, with particular attention to the gaps between mythology and practice" (86). People that love their country try to fix its problems, not run away at the first sight of them, as the upper strata of society would like.
The power elite in the United States must get a feeling of immense satisfaction every time they hear or read this statement, after all, this statement shows they are doing a very good job of indoctrinating the citizens of this country. Through control of public institutions the power elite in America is shaping people's beliefs. Through the so-called, "civic education" in the public schools to commercials such as the Budweiser ad analyzed in "On Reading A Video Text" by Robert Scholes, citizens are being force-fed ideology. Most do not even realize this is happening.
The citizens of the United States are continually reminded in almost every speech by our leaders that America is the "greatest, strongest, most free" country on the face of the earth. This is said so much, and pounded into children's heads so often, that most believe it is the absolute truth. People tend to forget, or ignore truth, such as the stark dividing line between rich and poor. People in the United States today have less chance of moving up the social ladder than ever before. The "American dream" is just that, a dream. People that believe or want to believe in this dream do not want to hear the patriots that point out the problems with society and offer up ideas on how to fix them. The most many do in response to an argument is to say "love it or leave it" or use an argumentum ad hominem.
Ideology’s purpose is to give people a dream world to live in. People get so immersed in this dream that they do not see the reality. It gives people a distortion rather than a mirror image of reality. It mystifies the class differences that exist and justifies political actions such as the invasion of Iraq or the war in Vietnam. It gives people a way to view the world that enables them to shut out the facts they do not want to see and let in the things that are viewed as acceptable. Everyone tries to explain away the parts of reality that contradict their ideologies. As the above paragraph said, if someone cannot come up with a good way to explain away something, they believe they devalue what was said by using an argumentum ad hominem. Ideology pulls us away from the real problems and contradictions in society and isolates us, as Teresa L. Ebert wrote, from “the cause of the difference” (8). Rather than the masses getting upset that they were dished out a sorry lot in life, ideology stops this by making “legitimate the interests of the few” (Ebert, 8). People are forced through ideology to believe that if they are poor it is their fault because they made the wrong choices. It is often not the individual’s fault, for this person was never offered opportunity to make choices – at least not to the extent of the elite.
In "Marxism And The Philosophy Of Language," V.N. Volosinov, writing about ideological signs, mentioned that "a sign does not simply exist as a part of a reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it..." (10). An ideological statement such as the one discussed in this work serves as a window on ideology. Ideology "reflects and refracts another reality." It gives people a myth to believe in and it makes it hard for people to get beyond that myth and see truth. Critique of ideology exposes truth. To wipe the widow free of the grime that obstructs our collective view, all of us must critically analyze ideological statements. With critical analysis we can get past parts of ideology that convince us that things are as they should be.
In "Ludic Feminism And After," Teresa L. Ebert wrote that "ideology is the means by which social differences are signified and maintained or contested." She went on to say that "material contradictions produced in the economic practices of capitalism... are naturalized as inevitable" (7-8). The United States, a country that is an example to other countries as a capitalist system, is far from egalitarian, but people view this country as the "land of equality," a place where "everyone is equal." How do these inaccurate perceptions of reality get so deeply ingrained into the American consciousness? Moon wrote in "Ideology" that "powerful groups" in society "can succeed in passing on their view of the world to others, so that one way of thinking tends to dominate." This is what happens in America's schools under the guise of "civic education."
The argument that the powerful groups pass on their ideas is consistent with the argument about dominant readings. Readings become so widespread that people regard all the readings as lies and unnecessary criticism. Then they resort to the "love it or leave it" argument. An argument against a dominant reading is an affront to the dominant ideology that formed that reading. The real patriots are often regarded as the traitors — the ones that do not love their country.
In "On Reading A Video Text," Robert Scholes mentioned "the indoctrination of young people in certain cultural myths" such as the "myth of America" (85). This is the dream that every American has equal opportunity to "get ahead;" to move up the social ladder. The problem with this belief is that everyone does not have equal opportunity to get ahead. Does the child of a factory worker have same opportunity as the child of the factory owner? Absolutely not. An essential part of the myth of America is the belief that the capitalist system benefits everyone; it makes people equal. Again, absolutely untrue. Capitalism creates a first class citizen and a second class citizen. It automatically creates the rich and the poor. So, who benefits from citizens believing in the "myth of America?" Who benefits from the statement "America: love it or leave it?" This statement is an attempt to stop change, an attempt at, as Scholes put it, "cultural reinforcement" of a myth (82). So, in other words, who benefits from the status quo?
Critical analysis of texts is important to be able to answer these questions. Scholes points out that "the analysis of video texts needs to be taught in all our schools" (85). The poor need to analyze critically the ideology expounded by the mass media, government, and other social institutions for the poor in America do not benefit from the status quo. Ebert wrote in "Ludic Feminism And After" that "ideology critique... explains how differences are constructed socially and naturalized to legitimate the interests of the few. Ideology, then, is not simply representation: it denies social contradictions. Critique of ideology is an understanding of the materiality of these denials and the interests they serve: through the critique of ideology these naturalized relations can be exposed and contested" (8-9). Everyone needs to critique the dominant ideology to expose these differences. Through this critique we can see how statements such as "America: love it or leave it" are derived from dominant ideology and we can see who benefits from statements such as this that maintain the status quo of capitalist exploitation of the masses. All the real patriots need to let their voices be heard and never be silent. Silence is loud and its consequences echo on through the ages.
Ebert, Teresa L. Ludic Feminism and After. The University Of Michigan Press, 1996.
Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. Boston, New York. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.
Moon, Brian. Literacy Terms: A Practical Glossary. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1999.
Scholes, Robert. "On Reading A Video Text." Mass Culture And Electronic Media. Eds. Jon and Marjorie Ford. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Volosinov, V.N. Marxism And The Philosophy Of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunika. London, England: Harvard University Press, 1973.