Reclaiming patriotism

20 January 2009 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

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.


28 Responses to “Reclaiming patriotism”

  1. Henry Gee | Permalink

    I remember nineteen ninety-seven
    We thought that we had bought a fare to heaven
    We voted for a man named Tony Blair.
    And what we got was so much empty air.

  2. Chris Surridge | Permalink

    Oh Henry,

    I’ve been trying so hard not to be an old cynic and mention that. At least not until the bright party balloons had all burst and the bunting had been rolled up for another 4 years.

  3. Marco Boscolo | Permalink

    well, thank you noah for your post. beeing italian, the country with the lower patritic feelings in the world (apart from football, of course), I envy your ability of been proud of your country. and if I were american I would have been proud of my president too. unluckly my president is mr. silvio berlusconi…

  4. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    The various US commentators I have read said that it was not Obama who muffed the oath but the other guy (the justice), and that Obama got it right.

  5. Marco Boscolo | Permalink

    I read the same thing too. If i’m not wrong, Justice Roberts has been elected with just one vote against him: Obama’s…

  6. Kristi Vogel | Permalink

    Regarding the oath-flubbing, and what could be done about it. Might be catering to potential complaints from the tinfoil hat “birther” crowd, but probably not a bad idea. President Obama is known as a Constitutional scholar (I love being able to type “President” and “scholar” in the same positive sentence again), so I’ve no doubt he’ll take appropriate corrective actions.

  7. Chris Surridge | Permalink

    Strictly speaking they both got it wrong as the constitution gives the oath as:

    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

    they had both passed “execute” before remembering they had to fit in “faithfully” somewhere and got in a bit of a dither about where was the next best place and chose different spots.

    Being a stickler for detail (_Nature_’s subeditors have taught me well) I rather like knowing that President Obama was wrong when he said in his speech

    Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath

    Actually it’s only forty-three. He is the forty-fourth president however Grover Cleveland gets counted twice as his two terms were not continuous but separated by Benjamin Harrison (1889 to 1893). So BHO is the 44th president but only the 43rd person to be president.

    (Hat tip to Language Log for fuelling my pedantry)

  8. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    Here’s Meg Gardiner, US lawyer-turned-thriller-writer.

    She’s with Obama. But I am with Chris on the 44/43 point – being an ex-subeditor myself I noticed that at the time but as “ex” is the operative word and I thought the rest of the speech passed muster, I decided not to quibble ;-)

  9. Cristian Bodo | Permalink

    I sort of agree with what you’re saying, but cannot help thinking that the idea that pursuing individual goals as the means of building a better society is quintessentially American, so I’m kind of sceptical about they doing such a 180 degree turn with the advent of Obama.
    Also, even though electing him was definitively a right step towards gaining back their global stature and I think this has generated a lot of goodwill among the international community, it’s necessary to be a little realistic: The Bush administration didn’t happen in the vacuum. He was re-elected by the majority of the American electorate EVEN AFTER he had blatantly lied to them about the WMDs in Iraq and took them to war. It would be foolish to expect that the rest of the world will just dismiss that as a bad dream and start hailing the USA as some kind of new moral beacon. We all have to live with our mistakes and I’m affraid that this should also apply to American society as a whole.

  10. Kristi Vogel | Permalink

    He was re-elected by the majority of the American electorate

    At the risk of being accused of tinfoil hat-wearing myself, there are some problems with that assumption. Water under the bridge, though.

  11. Cristian Bodo | Permalink

    Maybe you’re thinking of the 2000 election, when the Dems basically refused to fight to the end and gave Bush the chance to get himself into the White House. The 2004 election, though… As far as I can remember, there was never any controversy about that result: Bush won, Kerry lost.

  12. Kristi Vogel | Permalink

    Maybe you’re thinking of the 2000 election

    No, I’m not.

  13. Christie Wilcox | Permalink

    I think Obama has some big shoes to fill, provided nicely by the American people. We have high expectations and high hopes for him, and I worry that we might be wishing for a miracle instead of a president. But I, like most of us, still hope he’ll rise to the occasion and, as you say, make me proud to be patriotic again.

  14. Noah Gray | Permalink

    @Henry – As if Mr. Blair did nothing. He made good use of that hot air – using it to fill the magnificent Millennium Dome, complete with its associated “experience”:


    Tony Blair’s “beacon to the world.” Photo courtesy of Andrew Hall

    @Christian – Thanks for your thoughts, I agree with your sentiments, but maintain a certain level of optimism. Regarding Bush, in 2000, Americans thought they were electing a bipartisan centrist who wanted to move beyond the typical Washington status quo. Nobody thought that moving past partisan Washington meant filling the cabinet with unqualified, incompetent cronies who previously worked for the International Arabian Horse Association.

    As for the re-election in 2004, I can only plead insanity on behalf of my country. I think people were still scared of the situation in Iraq and John Kerry failed to motivate or inspire them. He definitely didn’t do much for me except that he wasn’t named W. And Bush did only receive 50.8% of the vote, hardly a mandate.

    Once a remarkable choice was put in front of the electorate, states that hadn’t voted Democratic in 50 years suddenly chose the Democrat, Obama, by overwhelming margins. Making people believe was required in the 1930’s in order to get through the GD and war. Why is it so hard to believe that people cannot begin to believe in something else, something with which they actually feel a connection? Cynicism will not allow things to change. Hope just might. So for me, it is alright to hope.

    I am perfectly happy to let actions speak louder than words, but those actions can only happen with a little faith and always start with little more than a promise. So I’m onboard. I believe that I have no choice. And I’ll be the first one off if this train derails. Of course, given the gravity of the issues at hand, if I am the first one off upon failure, it may be because I was flung afar following a massive train wreck…

  15. Åsa Karlström | Permalink

    See, I was told that it was because non of them wanted to use cue cards that lead to the “muffling” ….

    In regards to the patriotism. There is nothing that gives me the most patriotism as being away from your own country. Or at least that was the deal the first year away. Now, I am not as sure… something to do with the honey moon phase is over and I look back and realise that there are problems everywhere. (but alright, I am still kind of proud of the Swedish soil. Politician wise, ehh… let’s just take a pass on it for now?! Not really sure on what I think about it.)

  16. Eva Amsen | Permalink

    Hm. “This” is what happened to patriotism in Holland (The link goes to a Google search for articles about the Dutch flag being banned in Dutch schools.)

  17. Eva Amsen | Permalink

    Oh geez, I do suck at internet today, don’t I?

  18. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Don’t worry Eva, that interweb thing is dang tricky…

  19. Åsa Karlström | Permalink

    Eva> we had a similar “thing” happening back in Sweden when I was in junior high school…. not singing the national anthem ^^ when school closed for summer. Granted, this was when the national day (really “the Day of the Flag”) was a regular day and the only ones who were parading and having the flag out was… the “nationalists”. Since a couple of years back the 6th of June is a official holiday so I think there has been a “reclaiming”, sort of. But it is still a strange story….

  20. Eva Amsen | Permalink

    Haha, nobody in Holland ever sings the national anthem anywhere. Partly because it’s 15 verses, but there is a shortened version of only verse 1 and 6 that nobody knows either. It’s really embarrassing when Holland wins an Olympic medal, because nobody on the podium ever knows the words to the anthem, and they just stand there, either just smirking or sometimes pretending to sing. Not being an athlete or member of the royal family, I have never in my entire life been in a situation where singing the Dutch anthem was wanted or even appropriate, but I did analyze it (as a poem) in high school.

  21. Henry Gee | Permalink

    Hah! Just goes to show the awesome power of the Nature Network.

  22. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    It’s really embarrassing when Holland wins an Olympic medal

    no comment.

  23. Chris Surridge | Permalink

    Since we are talking about patriotism, and since getting a grip on English attitudes to patriotism is very tough in that almost nothing associated with England can’t be both celebrated and criticised, and since I was reminded of this story only last night while watching tv, I’ll share it with you:

    During his stint as prime minister Winston Churchill was once woken in the early hours by his private secretary to be told that during the previous evening one of the cabinet had been discovered in a compromising position with a guardsman in Hyde Park, and that the press had got hold of the story.

    Winston: Very cold last night?

    Private Secretary: Yes sir. I believe it was one of the coldest nights for 30 years.

    Winston: Makes you proud to be British!

  24. Maxine Clarke | Permalink

    Hee hee, Chris.

    Noah – re the Millennium Dome. This is now doing extremely well financially as an events venue. In fact, the way things are going, it is almost Britain’s main source of revenue.

  25. Noah Gray | Permalink

    Yes, I had read that Maxine. But it is more fun to think of its status back in the early 2000s when it was sitting empty for years, costing up to £1 billion annually just to maintain…

  26. Michael Nestor | Permalink

    @ “Reclaming patriotism”: I thought that there is nothing more American (i.e. interwoven into the Constitution) than a healthy mistrust/skeptical eye towards government…not an increasing belief in it as the solver of all problems

    Seems pretty incongruent with what Obama and Bush have done/said as far as governing.

    @ China sentiments in this article, yes they do have a nationalistic capitalism going on there-which they bring here (U.S.), then take intellectual capital back to prop up their science/technology/economy, so they can sell us goods at Walmart (and own our banks and so forth).

    -And not all peoples from China do this, I realise that-so hold the nasty comments, I am just trying to illustrate a point…-

    So why again are we all so excited about training all these foreign Ph.Ds? Because to bring up this type of issue would toe the line of xenophobia charges from others, and in order to keep from being labeled as such we sweep it under the rug. (And I will say I am personally in favor of the exchange programs we have for foreign scientists).

    How does a renewed sense of American national pride not get us into this predicament of loving ones self at the expense of others? How might Obama solve that? I am not so sure that all this “infastructure building” will end up with us having better standing in the world.

    But let’s see what he can do-I have an open (slightly skeptical) mind.

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