I sat in the NPG New York office break room today to watch President Obama’s inauguration on a projection screen with about 40-50 of my colleagues. We all laughed when Mr. President muffed the oath not once, but twice while trying to follow the elusive words of Justice Roberts. This was but a minor speed bump before an illustrious speech outlining the responsibility for the future. It lies with us. Every one of us. But what does this really mean?
For some time now, over the last 4 years or so, to be “patriotic” has not been the coolest thing in the United States. I’m talking long after those country singers sang about sticking their boots in al Qaeda’s arse, etc… Once the WMDs were found to be missing, the death toll kept rising in Iraq and Afghanistan and Former President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner looked like a sick joke, people lost faith in these wars, the premises underlying them, and in a government/country embodied by a seemingly callous Republican hegemony. In short, it was difficult to be patriotic. So what happened? People turned inwards, worried about themselves, their family and their pet projects. The nation seemed to be hopeless and not worth our efforts.
Obama’s speech made a bold attempt to change that demeanor, and one could easily see his vision for the future: a difficult struggle against the disastrous international policies of the previous administration, against the greedy misbehavior of a poorly-regulated financial sector, against the difficulty and challenge in reforming health care and entitlement, and especially against the rising tide of indifference to America’s problems. This last one is key. America’s problems, not the individual’s problems. This message was not sugar-coated. It was not always pleasant. And yes, it will be a difficult struggle.
President Obama was trying to reclaim patriotism. Making it something worthwhile. Something to be proud of, not something to hide or be ashamed of. His call was for us to make the necessary sacrifices now, so that our children’s children can reap the benefits, just as we have reaped the benefits from the previous generations, who fought in two World Wars and rose from the ashes of the Great Depression. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here. Any daily reading of the newspaper should be able to tell you that we are living in very, very turbulent times. If you don’t believe me, please compare today’s news with the headlines of 1998-1999, for example.
A good friend of mine once told me that one reason why China has quickly rose (and continues to rise) to become a dominant world power was because of the nationalistic attitudes of its people. No matter where he traveled throughout the country, he consistently encountered strong national pride amongst those who had nothing of their own. They felt their worth was measured by how well they served the larger community, making China stronger. This is indeed a powerful sentiment, and when I visited China last May, my conversations uncovered the same beliefs of which my friend spoke.
I am not trying to suggest that the communistic organization of China is a good fit for America, but this notion of national pride, working for the good of the whole country, and not just for the individual, is a powerful force when attempting to execute change, a theme I took away from today’s speech. This is the time for recognition. This is the time for action. This is the time for duty. President Obama and congress plan to fix the economy, make more jobs, clean up the environment, slow down global warming, reclaim our formerly-respected global stature, bring research funding back as a priority, undertake immigration reform, fix entitlement spending, provide better healthcare, balance the budget and reverse a spiraling trade deficit. That’s quite a
unrealistic bold list, but not even one fraction of this agenda will be possible without the input, efforts, sacrifice and support of the people. These changes will only start if we let them. President Obama and congress will only facilitate what burdens we are willing to bear.
So to all those who live and participate in this democratic experiment called America, citizens or not, don’t be ashamed of your patriotism. Be proud of your country. And be ready to do your part.