It's Not About the Medals

This February, Michelle Obama caused a spasm of faux outrage on the right when, in attempting to argue that her husband's campaign had brought something new to a political climate that had been so ugly for so long, she said that for the first time in her adult life, she was proud of her country. Though she obviously meant her country's politics and not her country per se, the reaction was predictable. One voice joining the chorus of condemnation was that of Cindy McCain, who made sure to say that she has always been proud of her country. (She'd have her husband beat on that one; John McCain has said, "I didn't really love America until I was deprived of her company," meaning the first 31 years of his life.)

Now that the quadrennial exercise in skill, endurance, and jingoistic chest-thumping we call a presidential campaign has been interrupted by the Olympics, there is a lot of patriotic feeling around. As usual, our athletes are showing themselves to be capable of spectacular physical feats (even if the Chinese will probably win more medals). Watching Michael Phelps thrust through the pool or Shawn Johnson do a tumbling run produces a sense of wonder at the capabilities of the human body. But does it really make us feel any different about America than we did two weeks ago?

Cindy McCain's view, which it's fair to say is representative of the typical conservative outlook, sees patriotism as both static and all-or-nothing. You either love your country or you don't, and if you love it, you love it all the time and you always have. But I have to confess that I'm not always proud of my country, and I have trouble believing that Cindy McCain, or anyone who would second her, really is either. I'm not proud of our health insurance system, or the fact that for some reason we produce more serial killers than any other nation on earth. Was your typical conservative proud of this country when it elected Bill Clinton twice? I doubt it.

In other words, even for those who profess their love of America in the loudest voices, who can't wait for the next opportunity to chant "USA! USA!", patriotism may be a little more complex than it seems.

The Olympics certainly have made me well with pride in America. But it wasn't the gold medals that did it; it was something else entirely. It started with the opening ceremonies. As each country's athletes walked around the track, one couldn't help but marvel at the diversity of the human race and our variety of cultures and languages. Nonetheless, there was something different about the American team: they didn't all look alike.

The American athletes came in all colors, descended from European, South American, Asian, and African stock. Among them were the grandchildren of immigrants, the children of immigrants, and immigrants themselves. In the parade of nations, they were led by flag-bearer Lopez Lamong, a Sudanese refugee stolen from his parents at the age of six by militiamen who wanted to turn him into a soldier. Lamong escaped, walked over the Kenyan border, and eventually found his way to the United States, where he became a champion distance runner.

Lamong's story is heartbreaking and inspiring, but what is so remarkable is that in America, so many of us have similar tales in our family history. Every family everywhere has its tragedies and sufferings, but nearly every American family has a story of hardship that ends with arrival in this country. Every American (save the one percent of us descended from native groups) is here because someone was willing to leave behind everything they knew and take an extraordinary risk for themselves and those who would come after them, joining immigrants from a hundred other lands to remake America with each new generation.

As thrilling as the swimming, track, and other competitions have been, the moment of this Olympics I found most profound was the end of the men's gymnastics team competition. Each team sends three gymnasts to each apparatus, and on the last (the dreaded pommel horse) the United States was represented by Raj Bhavsar, Kevin Tan, and Alexander Artemev. Their scores weren't good enough to secure a victory (they won the bronze, and the favored Chinese team took the gold). But watching the United States represented by an Indian-American, a Chinese-American, and a Russian-American said more about what makes this country special than any collection of medals and world records.

Progressives don't spend as much time as they should talking about what makes our country unique, in no small part because we are attuned to its contradictions. After all, America has produced over three hundred Nobel Prize winners, nearly three times as many as any other country, yet only half of us acknowledge that human evolution occurred. Americans invented the airplane, the telephone, the polio vaccine and the Internet, yet we have a long and ignominious history of anti-intellectualism (enthusiastically embraced by one of our two major political parties). We have produced more wealth, innovation, and artistic dynamism than any country in history, yet our best-selling book of recent decades is a collection of dopey aphorisms and dime-store theology.

Ask Americans what makes their country great, and the first word out of most people's mouths will be "freedom." As a writer who makes a living doing things like calling the president a liar, I have an almost religious reverence for freedom, particularly freedom of speech. But though this was the first democracy, our freedom as Americans is now far from unique. If it's just about "freedom," then America is no more special than Sweden or Japan or Costa Rica.

No, it is the immigrant experience, on full view in the Olympics, that makes America unique. It invigorates our culture, it drives our progress, and it is a history in which each and every citizen plays a role. It isn't simply part of the American story, it is the American story. That ought to make us all proud.

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