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Friday, February 6, 2009

Proud to have been Ashamed, Happy to be Proud

When Michelle Obama stated that she was proud of her country for the first time, the right wing fell all over itself in faux outrage. Sean Hannity and company thundered, and Cindy McCain started every campaign appearance by pointedly insisting that she was quote always proud of my country end quote.

But even though I am a white, middle-aged American male, whose life experience is far removed for Michelle Obama's, her words had resonance for me. Because to have always been proud of America is to have willingly had one's eyes closed. And the implication among the right wing that you're unpatriotic if you do not show unalloyed, uncritical admiration for America is both simplistic and insulting, but most importantly this attitude directly contradicts what makes America special. This nation was formed through lively dissent, not knee-jerk fealty to any political ideology, and that tradition of feisty self-criticism has thrived throughout America's existence. Critics from Tom Paine to Studs Terkel to Mark Twain – who bravely and tirelessly objected in print to American barbarity in the Philippines – sacrificed popularity, influence and livelihood while trying to steer this country from wrong to right.

Yes, I have been ashamed of my country. And I am proud of that, because it means that I hold her to a higher standard, because I love her deeply and hate to see her sully her hard-won principles for profit and short-term gain. I am ashamed that we helped overthrow democratically-elected governments from Chile to Iran. I am ashamed of the napalm and Agent Orange America smothered Indochina in. And of course I am ashamed that Americans enslaved millions of Africans with unspeakable cruelty, often justifying this practice with quotes from the Bible.

Did you know that there was a time, not too long ago, when Americans by the thousands flocked to public lynchings with their children and actually held picnics while black men were tortured to death? To quote historian Phillip Dray: "Lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers. Men brought their wives and children to the events, posed for commemorative photographs, and purchased souvenirs of the occasion as if they had been at a company picnic." Often severed roasted body parts of the victim comprised those grisly souvenirs, as patently repulsive and barbaric a practice as anything Al Queda has ever done. And these heinous crimes were often not committed by robed thugs under cover of darkness, but by public figures like police chiefs and local politicians, before an audience of thousands in a festive atmosphere in broad daylight. These are historical facts, and how Cindy McCain could be proud of them is beyond me.

And how could Sean Hannity and his odious brethren possibly be proud of the fact that taxpayer dollars were used for decades to fund the U.S. Military's School for the Americas, where generations of Latin American death squads were taught how to torture and practice terrorism? America's gluttony for cheap foreign labor and raw materials engendered the institutional export of a type of death-squad strong-man terrorism to South America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, often with devastating long-term repercussions. This shameless policy of training and supporting human rights violators occurred under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But on this past election day, before a house full of similarly disaffected liberals, people who like me have more often than not been ashamed of our country, I led a heartfelt and tearful toast, without any irony whatsoever, to the United States of America, for its refusal to relinquish hope in the face of ever more strident lies and fear-mongering and for its repudiation of race politics. America charted a brave new course into the unknown, and did something almost unthinkable to me. I never thought a black man could possibly be elected in my lifetime, and I still find it thrilling to be so wrong. We are at the vanguard of Western Democracies once more, in proving the impossible to be possible.

So I am extremely proud of my country today, a blushing, hopeful kind of pride. It's kind of a new feeling, but I could get used to it!

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