Thursday, January 22, 2009

Patriotism

An astonishing and unexpected change has occurred within me. I have become patriotic. I’d always been wary of wholesale patriotism. It felt slightly embarrassing. Crowds of Americans chanting “USA! USA!” at sporting events made me vaguely uneasy (ok, that probably hasn’t changed). Please understand – I did not consider all patriotism unwarranted. Those individuals who sacrifice of themselves for our nation are right to feel proud, as are those, like my maternal grandparents, who chose freedom deliberately at great personal risk and cost. But apart from casting my ballot faithfully, what have I done to deserve that particular brand of pride we call patriotism? Let’s face it: the fact that I am an American is simply an (exquisitely fortunate) accident of birth. I guess you could say that I thought of my American-ness as a personal attribute much like my curly hair; something I appreciate but didn’t fight for or choose, and as such, an insufficient thing over which to make a tremendous fuss.

And then I watched a new chapter of history being written before my eyes. I saw something that many of us hoped, but feared, would never happen. America elected Barack Obama. In huge numbers. Fair and square. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, not just because my candidate had prevailed or because a racial barrier had fallen, but also because the victory was decisive. After the traumatic push-me-pull-you of the 2000 election, anything less might have ripped a gaping wound in the fabric of our society. I felt grateful that an engaged electorate had participated vigorously in democracy. And I felt proud.

On Tuesday, I watched the inauguration coverage on a big screen amongst other students. One of the announcers made reference to a peaceful transfer of power. As I watched the four former presidents take their seats I considered the concept of a peaceful transfer of power. And then I thought of the millions of people in nations around the world who must be mystified and bewildered by our ceremony. “These men simply walked away from power? Without a fight? Surely not!”

We live in a world where so many are governed by despots who cling to power at any cost. Where a change in government is always accompanied by upheaval, violence, and frightful instability. As Americans, it is easy to take this aspect of our democracy for granted. After all, democracy has taken hold in other nations. We are not unique in this respect. But suddenly, I did not take the peaceful transfer of power for granted. A rather sizable minority voted for the other guy, but those folks didn’t riot in the streets. Some Americans may be accepting new leadership grudgingly, but accept it, they have. As I mulled this over, tears streaming down my cheeks, I was struck by the magnitude of our collective achievement. And in that moment, I became patriotic.

Now, more than anything, I have hope. Sometimes I have reservations because the challenges our President must face are so profound and the expectations of him are so high. How can this man, no matter how talented, intelligent, thoughtful, dignified, or principled tackle our troubles while living up to superhuman standards? Still, President Obama inspires in me a hope that resists being extinguished. He inspired a nation to reject decision-making based on fear and to embrace, instead, the simple but powerful idea that “YES WE CAN.” I could have conceived of the idea that I might one day see the election of an African-American to the nation’s highest office. But after years of nursing a deeply ingrained political cynicism, I never dared to dream that in my lifetime I would be able to shed that cynicism and unabashedly proclaim beaming pride in my President. Never before have I felt this way about a leader. I didn’t think it was possible.

President Obama has spent only one working day in office, but already he has begun to live up to the ideals that he laid forth and with which he won my heart. An ethics class for his staff? Glory! Hail to the chief, indeed.


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