May Obama’s ‘patriotism’ exclude — patriots?

SIGHISOARA, Romania — Although the immediate surrounding of this medieval Saxon town monumentalizes an intimidating communist aesthetic insensitivity, the nearby countryside offers quaint pastoral scenes and boundless opportunity for travelers to interact with the Romanian locals. Thus, my father and I hoped for a taste of pre-modern life when we drive into the remote village of Archita and made our way to the village’s general store and café.

A collection of Romanians sat inside — some on a brief visit, others there for the afternoon — all residents of the village. Upon learning that we were Americans, a group of four at a table invited us to join them.

Costi, 58, and his three sons opened the conversation by telling us that they liked Americans. Serbians and Russians were somewhat decent, they continued, the Poles and Hungarians slightly worse, but the Albanians truly hateful. Costi asserted the beauty of the Romanian countryside, the richness of the Romanian language, the friendliness of the people and, after a requisite introduction, the quality of Palinka, a locally produced brandy. (We agreed.) Increasingly intoxicated from multiple rounds, Costi had no inhibitions expressing his simple patriotism.

Patriotism is a term thrown about quite a lot in the recent media, especially in the context of American presidential race. Usually paired with “Barack Obama” in an interrogative sentence, the phrase elicits, among other reactions, outrage and snickering, depending on the respondent. For its part, the Obama campaign has fought very hard against questions that challenge the patriotism of its candidate. To Obama’s credit, the senator made a speech on June 30th, entitled “The America We Love,” in order to state and defend with precision his understanding of patriotism.

Reading over the speech, it is not possible to find anything controversial. It is imbued with the greatest political rhetoric of American history. The speech seems to be a straightforward reaffirmation of Senator Obama’s patriotism coupled with a warning that he will defend himself against any who says otherwise. But Costi’s account of his own patriotism set Senator Obama’s remarks in relief, revealing a fundamental disparity between their two understandings of the word. While Costi’s patriotism is fundamentally tied to land, language and people, Senator Obama’s patriotism transcends such categories. “For me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people,” the senator said. “Instead, it is also loyalty to America’s ideals — ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.”

The key word in Senator Obama’s description is “anyone.” It signifies that his understanding of patriotism is a kind of universal patriotism — one of the human race rather than simply of America. A merely American patriotism would be an allegiance to the people and land residing in America, a traditional kind of allegiance to patria, fatherland. To have it would be impossible for those without origin or, at the very least, residence in America.

For Senator Obama, anyone anywhere can be an American patriot. The ideals are called American not because they are tied to the American experience but because Americans proclaimed them first. As he did in his speech in Berlin, Senator Obama can call himself both a citizen of America and a citizen of the world because his loyalty to a universal ideal transcends his loyalty to the American people.

As Costi drank more, he became very affectionate with me. He gave me great hugs, clapped me on the back, rubbed my head. Suddenly and all at once, he broke down crying. We soon learned that Costi had a special interest in Americans — and was prone to buying them drinks — because they reminded him of his wife who had gone to visit America but, upon deciding to seek a new life there, overstayed her visa and remained. According to Senator Obama, this Romanian who broke her husband’s heart by leaving him and their patria is a true American patriot. For in her actions she expressed the “essential American idea: that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will.”

It seems to me that life is very largely the product of accidents. If humans are afforded intentionality and will, and are able to shape the world around them, it is in the context of these accidents — place of birth, for instance — and not in contrast to them that they construct their own lives. Even if accidental, one’s customs, language and the bonds that create social relationships within a single geographic location are thick. Far from representing a negative quality to attribute to one’s homeland, it is this binding through which the accumulated wisdom of the ages is manifest nation by nation and by which individuals make a good life in the world they have received rather than trying to escape it. Patriotism of this sort forms a bulwark against the grand designs of the ruling elite who would rather not attend to the business of living in world.

Therefore, I am skeptical of Obama’s “essential American idea.” And I suppose that by the senator’s standards, I am not patriotic. I do not appreciate the accusation.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.


  • Add Taiwan for just US$79/room

    I very much doubt that Obama would ascribe American patriotism to anyone other than a citizen, resident, or someone moving to the United States.

    Just because some Germans in Berlin also shared his and other Americans ideals for a more peaceable world, they would not be American patriots, by his definition.

    And while you are certainly correct that many countries are not as welcoming to immigrants who cross oceans to start again (the US isn't so welcoming often either …), one of the defining qualities of being American is that one can become it. Everyone in this country, minus a few Pilgrims (and descendents) and Native American peoples, came after 1776.

    I can't tell if the word you are looking for is jingoism, or nationalism. But considering that on Thursday night Obama made quite clear that he thinks Sen. McCain is also a patriot, I have no doubt he would admire your patriotism.

    No need to straw-man yourself.

  • Joe

    All this "deep" thinking after some "palinca" ? Were you stil drunk when you were writing this "article" ?

  • Anonymous


    In short, this is a picky column. I did like it for allowing me to imagine you being rubbed on the head by a drunk Romanian man. Where you and I do agree, probably, is that Obama’s speeches are too often over-the-top razzle-dazzle given to make crowds cry. I suspect Obama himself knows this; but he also knows that he has to do it in order to win the election.

    The reason you have drawn the lines too sharply in this case is because of a misguided definition of American patriotism. You are a cynic of the idea of “global citizenship.” I will put the debate around this term aside for a moment to point out that you are wrong to pin Obama as a novel or even non-traditional peddler of universals-speak. Nothing could be more American. From its beginnings Americans declared it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” etc. This philosophical framework was reinforced by waves of immigration over the last two centuries. America, in short, is not a patria: the conventional usage of the term “melting pot,” of individuals from anywhere wanting to come and fulfill the “American dream” is more accurate. These circumstances have of course had an impact on the way Americans might view tradition or culture. As Tocqueville discerned even in the 1830s, everything in America is more fluid, more unstable. With this in mind, it may not be a coincidence that people frequently accuse America of “having no culture.” The Burkean formula you very obviously want to apply to America will not fit so nicely as in England, for the simple reason that our culture has a very close and clear beginning. It is not as organic.

    When Obama speaks in universals, he is drawing on the American tradition of universalism in order to use it as a base for challenges like globalization, international trade, etc, that must be addressed in global terms. Since the problems of non-critical patriotism in wars are obvious, I will focus on a more subtle and pernicious form that you seem to be defending. You would have us guess (since you don’t explicitly state what you fear) that Obama would dissolve “American” interests in favor of “global” interests. What precisely are you afraid of? Something like, that Obama will sign Kyoto instead of promoting America’s ‘home-grown’ tradition of thoughtless international market capitalism? This seems a likely guess based on your sentence: “Patriotism of this sort forms a bulwark against the grand designs of the ruling elite who would rather not attend to the business of living in world.” This mock-humility is disgusting coming from someone in a country as resource-guzzling and already global-minded as the United States. Your sentence could be translated by an example into “Patriotism of this sort forms a bulwark against the Kyoto treaty and other such international contracts which restrict economic freedom of Joe Smith to buy whatever he wants in Walmart and drive a Hummer.” This is not merely a vulgarization. Your definition of “patriotism” is really a veiled attempt for Americans to make whatever economic choices they want—choices which, perhaps unfortunately, do not only effect Americans. It is merely because of self-embarrassment that what is actually Americanization has been called “Globalization.” You are trying to misconstrue a small detail in Obama's speech to make it look as if he would eventually push to extend the rights of American citizenship to all human beings. It is a fact, anyway, that this has been a live possibility for anyone who actually ever became an American citizen, including your and my own fathers. You may be right in fearing the erosion of national or local pride of the kind the Romanian man displayed, but your proposed solution basically amounts to denying the problem exists.

    In order to preserve the country we were born in, we have to also talk to the countries from which our forefathers came. This is not a compromise of our “values” (even though that term would make less sense in America than many other countries), it is a way to protect the borders in which our values might exist. The alternative American “patriotism”— the kind that is current in America today, and the kind that will result when you try to invoke an idea of a patria that never existed— is to be global citizens while not acknowledging any of the duties that go along with it. That is hypocrisy.

  • Yale 2.0 '08

    Obama won't bring change. Sorry.

    If you like his actual policies (if you can identify them), then by all means, go ahead and vote for him.

    But he brings no change. See: His 100% voting record with the Democratic platform.

    He is as partisan as he is a Harvard grad.

  • Peter Johnston

    Would he who made the former post please identify himself? I would like the chance to discuss at greater length, in a different medium.