Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: On Patriotism

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On Patriotism  (2008) 
by Barack Obama
Delivered in Independence, MO on 30 June 2008,
Excerpted from the book Obama in His Own Words, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.

You know, on a spring morning in April of 1775, a simple band of colonists -- farmers, and merchants, and blacksmiths, and printers, men and boys -- they left their home and their families in Lexington and Concord to take up arms against the tyranny of an empire. And the odds against them were long, and the risks were enormous, for even if they survived that particular battle, any ultimate failure would bring charges of treason and death by hanging. And yet they took that chance. They did so not on behalf of a particular tribe or lineage, but on behalf of a larger idea: the idea of liberty, the idea of God- given, inalienable rights. And when the first shot of that fateful day, a shot heard 'round the world, was fired, the American Revolution and America's experiment with democracy began.

Those men of Lexington and Concord were among our first patriots. And at the beginning of a week when we celebrate the birth of our nation, I think it's fitting to pause for a moment and reflect on the meaning of patriotism, theirs and ours. We do so in part because we're in the midst of war. More than 1.5 million of our finest young men and women have now fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 60,000 have been wounded. Over 4,600 have been laid to rest. The costs of war have been great, and the debate surrounding our mission in Iraq has been fierce. It's natural in light of such sacrifice by so many to think more deeply about the commitments that bind us together as a nation and that bind us to each other, as well.

We reflect on these questions also because we are in the midst of a presidential election, perhaps the most consequential in generations, a contest that will determine the course of this nation for years, perhaps decades, to come. Not only is it a debate about big issues -- health care, jobs, energy, education, retirement security -- but it's also a debate about values. How do we keep ourselves safe and secure while preserving our liberties? How do we restore trust in a government that seems increasingly removed from its people and dominated by special interests? How do we ensure that, in an increasingly global economy, the winners maintain allegiance to the less fortunate? And how do we resolve our differences at a time of increasing diversity?

Finally, it's worth considering the meaning of patriotism, because the question of who is or is not a patriot all too often poisons our political debates in ways that divide us rather than bring us together. I've come to know this from my own experience on the campaign trail. Throughout my life, I've always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given. It was how I was raised; it is what propelled me into public service; it is why I am running for president. And yet, at certain times over the last 16 months, I've found for the first time my patriotism challenged, at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears and doubts about who I am and what I stand for.

So let me say this at the outset of my remarks: I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine. My concerns here aren't simply personal, however. After all, throughout our history, men and women of far greater significance and stature than me have had their patriotism questioned in the midst of momentous debates.

Thomas Jefferson was accused by the Federalists of selling out to the French; the Anti-Federalists were just as convinced that John Adams was in cahoots with the British, intent on restoring monarchal rule. Likewise, even our wisest presidents have sought sometimes to justify questionable practices on the basis of patriotism: Adams' Alien and Sedition Act, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. All were defended at the time as expressions of patriotism, and those who disagreed with their policies were sometimes labeled as unpatriotic. In other words, the use of patriotism as a political sword or a political shield is as old as the republic.

Still, what's striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s, in the arguments that go back 40 years or more. Some of you remember this. In the early years of the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic. Meanwhile, some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the '60s reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases the very idea of America itself, by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and, perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.

Now, most Americans never bought into these simplistic worldviews, these caricatures of left and of right. Most Americans understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic. And most Americans understand that there's nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America's traditions and institutions. And yet the anger and turmoil of that period never entirely drained away. All too often, our politics still seems trapped in these old, threadbare arguments, a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal.

Given the enormous challenges that lie before us, we can no longer afford these sorts of divisions. None of us expect that arguments about patriotism will, or should, vanish entirely. After all, when we argue about patriotism, we're arguing about who we are as a country and, more importantly, who we should be. But surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism. And surely we can arrive at a definition of patriotism that, however rough and imperfect, captures the best of America's common spirit.

What would such a definition look like? For me, as for most Americans, patriotism starts as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for country that's rooted in some of my earliest memories. And I'm not just talking about the recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Thanksgiving pageants at school, or the same fireworks on the Fourth of July that we just heard from earlier from Vince. Rather, as wonderful as these things may be, I'm referring to the way the American ideal wove its way throughout the lessons of my family, the lessons that my family taught me as a child.

You know, one of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandfather's shoulders and watching the astronauts come to shore in Hawaii. I remember the cheers and the small flags that people waved, and my grandfather explaining how we Americans could do anything we set our minds to do. That's my idea of America.

I remember listening to my grandmother telling stories about her work on a bomber assembly line during World War II. I remember my grandfather handing me his dog tags from his time in Patton's army and understanding that his defense of this country marked one of his greatest sources of pride. That's my idea of America.

I remember, when living for four years in Indonesia as a child, I listened to my mother reading me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they're endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I remember her explaining how this declaration applied to every American, black and white and brown alike, how those words and the words of the United States Constitution protected us from the injustices that we witnessed other people suffering during those years abroad. That's my idea of America.

As I got older, that gut instinct that so many of us have, that America is the greatest country on Earth, would survive. That gut instinct, that knowledge would survive my growing awareness of our nation's imperfections: its ongoing racial strife; the perversions of our political system that were laid bare during the Watergate hearings; the wrenching poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia, and inner cities and rural communities all across America. That instinct that this is the greatest country on Earth survived not only because, in my mind, the joys of American life and culture -- its vitality, its variety, its freedom -- always outweighed its imperfections, but because I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better. I came to understand that our revolution was waged for the sake of that belief: that we could be governed by laws, not men; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want, and assemble with whomever we want, and worship as we please; that we could have the right to pursue our individual dreams, but the obligation to help our fellow citizens pursue theirs.

You know, for a young man like me of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea -- that we are not constrained by the accident of birth, but can make of our lives what we will -- that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans. And that's why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it's also loyalty to America's ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.

I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one. It is the application of these ideals that separates us from Zimbabwe, where the opposition party and their supporters have been silently hunted, tortured or killed. It separates us from Burma, where tens of thousands continue to struggle for basic food and shelter in the wake of a monstrous storm because a military junta fears opening up the country to outsiders. Or Iraq, where, despite the heroic efforts of our military, men and women like this, and the courage of many ordinary Iraqis, even limited cooperation between various factions remains far too elusive. I believe those who attack America's flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world, do not truly understand America.

Of course, precisely because America isn't perfect, precisely because our ideals constantly demand more from us, patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader, or government, or policy. As Mark Twain, that greatest of American satirists and proud son of Missouri, once wrote, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it." That's what patriotism is.

That's what patriotism is. Now, we may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, stand up for what's right, and there are many times in our history when that's occurred. But when our laws, when our leaders or our government are out of alignment with those ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism. The young preacher from Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a movement to help America confront our tragic history of racial injustice and live up to the meaning of our creed, he was a patriot. The young soldier who first spoke about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, he is a patriot. Recognizing a wrong being committed in this country's name, insisting that we deliver on the promise of our Constitution, these are the acts of patriots, men and women who are defending what is best in America. And we should never forget that, especially when we disagree with them, especially when they make us uncomfortable with their words. That's part of the American tradition. That's part of why we are proud to be Americans.

Beyond a loyalty to America's ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice, to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause. Now, for those who've fought under the flag of this nation, for the young veterans like Vince, the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed, for those like John McCain, who have endured physical torment in service to our country, no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters of both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform, period, full-stop. Indeed, one of the good things to emerge from the current conflict in Iraq has been the widespread recognition that, whether you support this war or oppose it, the sacrifice of our troops is always worthy of honor. That's a change from the '60s that's been very welcome to many of us.

But for the rest of us, for those of us not in uniform or without loved ones in the military, the call to service for the country's greater good remains an imperative of citizenship. Sadly, in recent years, in the midst of war on two fronts, this call to service never came. After 9/11, we were asked to shop. The wealthiest among us saw their tax obligations decline, something that had never occurred before during wartime, even as the costs of war continued to mount. Rather than work together to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and thereby lessen our vulnerability to a volatile region, our energy policy remained unchanged and our oil dependence only grew.

In spite of this absence of leadership from Washington, I've seen a new generation of Americans begin to take up the call. I meet them everywhere I go, young people involved in the project of American renewal, not only those who have signed up to fight for our country in distant lands, but those who are fighting for a better America right here at home, by reaching out to those who are less fortunate, by teaching in underserved schools, or caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their local communities. I believe one of the tasks of the next administration is to ensure that this movement towards service grows and sustains itself in the years to come. We should expand AmeriCorps and grow the Peace Corps. We should encourage national service by making it a part of the requirement for a new college assistance program, even as we strengthen the benefits for those whose sense of duty has already led them to serve in our military.

So government can do its part. We must remember, though, that true patriotism cannot be forced or legislated with a mere set of government programs. Instead, it must reside in the hearts of our people, and cultivated in the heart of our culture, and nurtured in the hearts of our children.

As we begin our fourth century as a nation, it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted. But it is our responsibility as Americans and as parents to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression, through the great struggles of civil, and social, and worker's rights.

It is up to us, then, to teach them. It is up to us to teach them that even though we have faced great challenges and made our share of mistakes, we have always been able to come together and make this nation stronger, and more prosperous, and more united, and more just. It's up to us to teach them that America has been a force for good in the world and that other nations and other people have looked to us as the last, best hope on Earth. It is up to us to teach them that it is good to give back to one's community, that it is honorable to serve in the military, that it is vital to participate in our democracy and make our voices heard. And it is up to us to teach our children a lesson that those of us in politics all too often forget: that patriotism involves not only defending this country against external threat, but also working constantly to make America a better place for future generations.

When we pile up mountains of debt for the next generation to absorb or put off changes to our energy policies, knowing full well the potential consequences of inaction, we are placing our short-term interests ahead of the nation's long-term well-being. When we fail to educate effectively millions of our children so that they might compete in a global economy or we fail to invest in the basic scientific research that has driven innovation in this country, we risk leaving behind an America that has fallen in the ranks of the world.

Just as patriotism involves each of us making a commitment to this nation that extends beyond our own individual immediate self- interest, so must that commitment extend beyond our own time here on Earth. Our greatest leaders have always understood this. They've defined patriotism with an eye towards posterity. George Washington is rightly revered for his leadership of the Continental Army, but one of his greatest acts of patriotism was his insistence on stepping down after two terms, thereby setting a pattern for those that would follow, reminding future presidents that this is a government of and by and for the people.

Abraham Lincoln did not simply win a war or hold the union together. In his unwillingness to demonize those against whom he fought, in his refusal to succumb to either the hatred or self- righteousness that war can unleash, in his ultimate insistence that in the aftermath of war the nation would no longer remain half-slave and half-free, in his trust in the better angels of our nature, Lincoln displayed the wisdom and courage that sets a standard for patriotism.

And it was the most famous son of Independence, Harry S Truman, who sat in the White House during his final days in office and said in his farewell address, "When Franklin Roosevelt died, I felt there must be a million men better qualified than I to take up the presidential task. But through all of it, through all the years I have worked here in this room, I have been well aware than I did not really work alone, that you were working with me. No president could ever hope to lead our country or to sustain the burdens of this office, save the people helped with their support." That's what Truman said.

And in the end, it may be this quality that best describes patriotism in my mind, not just a love of America in the abstract, but a very particular love for, and faith in, the American people. That's why our hearts swell with pride at the sight of our flag, why we shed a tear as the lonely notes of "Taps" sound. For we know that the greatness of this country, its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, their restlessness and humor and quiet heroism. That's the liberty we defend, the liberty of each of us to pursue our own dreams. That's the equality we seek, not an equality of results, but the chance of every single one of us to make it if we try. That's the community we strive to build, one in which we trust in this sometimes messy democracy of ours, one in which we continue to insist that there is nothing we cannot do when we put our mind to it, one in which we see ourselves as part of a larger story, our own fates wrapped up in the fates of those who share allegiance to America's happy and singular creed.

That's what patriotism means to me. Thank you, Independence. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).