President Obama’s remarks in Selma over the weekend were some of the most powerful of his presidency, and not just because of the weight of the events that unfolded at the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. It was also a rare opportunity to hear Obama define and celebrate the very idea of American patriotism – in ways in which the public is rarely confronted.
superficial A video of the entire speech is below – and I’d encourage readers to take the time to watch it – though I suspect conservatives, many of whom have invested considerable energy in questioning the president’s love of country, won’t be impressed. Too often, our discourse evaluates patriotism in shallow and ways – who wears the biggest flag pin; who sings the national anthem the loudest; who’s quick to dismiss America’s missteps.
A half-century after the bloody violence in Selma, the president presented a very different kind of vision.
“[W]hat could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
For Obama’s Republican critics, the tired, often ugly, accusation is that the president denigrates the country by acknowledging times in which America has fallen short. To love one’s country, they argue, is to focus exclusively on our triumphs.
Obama knows better. Genuine love of country – patriotism with depth and purpose – involves wanting to make the nation better. It’s about putting one’s citizenship to use. It’s about acknowledging the instances in which we’ve fallen and cheering those who picked us back up.
“It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.“That’s what makes us unique…. That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. “
Obama highlighted the common thread that ties progressive causes for generations: from civil rights to women’s rights, from labor unions to gay rights, the American story is filled with ordinary people creating extraordinary change, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
In this vision of history, conservative proponents of an unjust status quo clearly do not fare well. Indeed, to a very real degree, the president characterized opponents of social justice as the great losers of our collective history. It is those who dared to question and challenge who have moved the nation forward – it is they who carry the torch of the American tradition.
And perhaps this helps explain some of the right’s incessant attacks on Obama’s patriotism. The conservative condemnation of the president’s love of country is sometimes predicated on the assertion that Obama does not believe we are already perfect. Saturday offered a president’s impassioned reply: to be a patriot is to be unsatisfied, and to keep striving for a more perfect union.
“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. […]“Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes We Can.’ That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
James Fallows added, “The political tribalism of this moment means that Democrats are mostly welcoming today’s speech, and Republicans and Fox News mostly condemning it. But these days Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted respectfully even at right-wing gatherings. When the political passions of our time have passed, people of all parties will quote this speech as expressing an essence of our American creed.”
Take the time to watch it.