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.