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Pondering Patriotism

Except for the outraged reaction to Barack Obama’s suggestion that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everyone,” no response to a 2008 campaign statement surprised me more than the vitriol directed at Michelle Obama for telling an audience that because of the positive response to her husband’s candidacy “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”  Not only did I strenuously object to the strenuous objections lodged against the couple, I couldn’t even understand the opprobrium directed at the Obamas for what seemed to me commonplace observations.  

As we celebrate our national independence this weekend,  I am reminded of both inexplicable uproars, now framed against a popular claim among the Republican candidates hoping to face and defeat President Obama next year: that the President doesn’t believe in “American exceptionalism.” Although it garnered less attention than the two campaign statements, an answer by President Obama to an interview question early in his administration has apparently stuck in the craw of these GOP presidential hopefuls: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

The ancient, healthy, sociable inclination to spread wealth around offers obvious guidance in the current tax and spending debates. But the other two statements deserve particular pondering this holiday weekend, since they go to the question of patriotism, often a fraught subject for liberals.

Comedian and senator Al Franken once compared unthinking, “love it or leave it” patriots to the kind of friends who don’t care enough to offer constructive criticism; he thought a more discerning affection for one’s nation actually took more effort and displayed more respect. I agree.  I would add that when it comes to love of country, one size doesn’t fit all--the nature and degree depend on your experience.  Returning to Michelle Obama’s campaign confession: that anyone would be angrily surprised that an African-American woman would be pleasantly surprised to feel pride in a country that spent most of its history physically and emotionally assaulting people just like her is...well, surprising.

And that Barack Obama wants to tone down the American exceptionalism talk while trying to repair international relations damaged through too much jingoistic chest-thumping in previous administrations just seems like good sense.   The U.S. fills a unique place in the world, stands for important principles, has done and does much good.  But there’s too broad a shadow over our record to justify the kind of religious idolatry the right wing apparently demands. Instead of worshipers, let’s be--on this 4th of July and always--good friends to our country, as ready to help correct her faults as celebrate her greatness.

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