Reflections on Obama-Era Patriotism

President's Day is an opportunity to bore children with that old story about George Washington and the cherry tree (entirely fabricated by Mason Locke Weems, a turn-of-the-century Deepak Chopra, by the way), save on the new car you've been eyeing (must we always link patriotism with spending?), and most important, reflect on the deeper meaning of being American.

Patriotism has gotten a spirited resurrection in the last year thanks to the longest and one of the most closely watched presidential campaigns in history, which led to an election with the highest turnout ever (128 million). From local restaurants to political blogs, water coolers to car pools, Americans were constantly chattering about who would be the best-equipped and most visionary leader for this country. We asked ourselves and each other, who do we want our president to be? The sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit core of these discussions was an even deeper question: Who the heck are we?

This is the question that has defined the ebb and flow of patriotism for the last century. In the 1930s and 1940s, loving your country was framed as the antidote to communism; President Harry Truman's obsession with pledges turned patriotism into a safety blanket. Sen. Joseph McCarthy took it to the next level, selling patriotism as more of a bromide than a blanket -- a sedative so effective it put even free-thinkers to sleep. Vietnam was the alarm bell that awakened a nation; young people all over the country questioned the wisdom of using patriotism as an excuse to kill innocent people. It wasn't until the attacks of September 11 that a 21st-century patriotism was born. On that day, we fled to public places -- parks and bars and churches -- and held hands with strangers. Despite the president's framing that the proper response to terrorism was consumerism and retaliation, Americans wrested a deeper meaning out of the unfathomable violence. We wanted to be together and safe.

But our precious opportunity to revitalize true patriotism was hijacked by a war-mongering administration and our own complacent fear. In the years that followed, hollow patriotism -- appeals to God and American values -- played on a loop that echoed with deadly hypocrisy. Over the last couple of years we began to collectively rise up in response to the Bush administration's infuriating policies and demand a more complex, more honest definition of patriotism from our nation's leaders. And finally, more than seven years after September 11, we got to experience rare unity in the form of Obama's landslide election, made possible by the efforts of average Americans.

Now here we are. After September 11 and its long fallout, after the most drawn-out campaign in history, after the inauguration of a new president, who are we? Improbably, we are less economically stable yet more hopeful than ever. We are the most racially diverse population in the history of the United States. We are wealthy and we are struggling, with not much in between. We are still shockingly segregated from one another -- socially, economically, interpersonally.

Today, patriotism means genuine, once-and-for-all integration. We can't keep waving our red, white, and blue flags in separate countries. We can't keep insisting that we are one nation, when, in fact, we are so very many separated largely by arbitrary but life-defining demographic differences.

Loving this country means not just loving and interacting with one segment of it. Long after Jim Crow and Brown v. Board of Education, we've been willfully segregated while spouting a lot of rhetoric about the "melting pot" and the "American Dream." In 2000 I met a little girl in South Africa who asked me in utter amazement, "So in America, people of different races all live right next door to one another?" I took a look around and had to tell her that, in the U.S., the segregation was not much different from Langa Township in barely post-apartheid South Africa.

Claims that Obama's presidency somehow marked the beginning of post-racial America highlighted, at worst, just how shallow our understanding of difference often is, and, at best, how hungry we are for actual integration. We know in our bones that America is defined by our diversity, that we are great -- not because of our economic wealth or our easily exported celebrity culture -- but because of our capacity to hold so many religions, so many ethnicities, so many philosophies and lifestyles, within our borders. But patriotism is best demonstrated by transcending the borders within our own lives, not sitting back in our own little silos.

To realize this definition of patriotism, we need the guts to walk up to people unlike us and introduce ourselves, the initiative to create authentic relationships with folks outside of our organic social sphere, the presence to recognize -- and this is how bad it really is -- that those who work for us or employ us, those who serve us or are served by us, those in both red states and blue are human beings with things to teach. Too often, class, race, political, and geographic differences still dehumanize us. The taxi driver is just hands and foreign music. NASCAR moms are just minivans and juice boxes. We neglect to discover the stories behind the stereotypes. Sometimes it feels as if we're moving too fast to be curious anymore, to look beyond the cultural shorthand.

In 2009, a year of so much peril and promise, it's time to define patriotism as our capacity to have social courage in our day-to-day lives, to learn from folks across the many fault lines that carve ignorance and indifference through America. We are only as patriotic as the company we keep, by which I mean, if you live in a homogeneous bubble, then you are missing out on the lived experience of what it means to be American today. Your understanding of this country is stunted and incomplete.

There are many things more patriotic than singing the national anthem or sporting a flag pin on your lapel: introducing yourself to a maintenance worker in your office building, calling up that diehard Republican cousin and asking her to breakfast, becoming friends with someone 30 years older than you or many tax brackets below you. And beyond the critical one-on-one interactions, it is profoundly patriotic to support big-picture policies that attack the class divide, strengthen public education, and fight discrimination on every level.

I cannot tell a lie. This country is amazing, but it's also still painfully segregated and will remain so until Americans collectively decide that true patriotism is treating one another -- regardless of status, political affiliation, or race -- like the potential teachers that we are.