THE BLOG
07/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Patriotism and Michelle Obama: A 4th of July Reflection

Patriotism is not "my country right or wrong." In the words of the great German-American Civil War General, Republican Senator, Secretary of the Interior, journalist, editor and author Carl Schurz, it is: "Our country, right or wrong." When right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right." Another great 19th century American, Mark Twain, put it this way: "Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your conviction is to be an unqualified and excusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may."

These sentiments come to mind this 4th of July in connection with the flap earlier this year over Michelle Obama's saying that she was proud of this country for the first time; something that both McCain and Hillary jumped on with the claim that they had always been proud of their country. Michelle has repeatedly clarified her meaning and her intent, pointing out that she was talking about her pride in our political process for the first time in her life and reminding audiences that her own career, independent of her husband's, is a testament to the steady progress that America has made on both race and gender issues. But the entire debate makes me uncomfortable, because it panders to a phenomenon in our political life that might best be called red, white and blue-baiting.

Patriotism demands the ability to feel shame as much as to feel pride. We should be proud of our country when we have done something to be proud of, when we have lived up to our own standards. But the flip side of genuine pride is being able to recognize when we have fallen short, and to hold ourselves to account. The false pride of perennial celebration, of wearing flag lapel pins while betraying the values that the flag stands for, is like the self-esteem curriculum for toddlers, where everything is praised and no achievement ultimately has meaning.

My mentor at Harvard Law School was Abram Chayes, a great lawyer, thinker, and patriot who served as Legal Adviser to the State Department in the Kennedy administration and helped craft the ultimate solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was America's top lawyer in its relations with the rest of the world. Twenty years later, when the Reagan administration secretly mined Nicaragua's harbors, an act that triggered outrage from as staunch a conservative as Barry Goldwater, Nicaragua asked Abe to be part of its legal team in a suit against the United States in the International Court of Justice for violating international law. Stuart Taylor profiled Abe in the New York Times, under the headline: "The American Accuser." When asked about suing his own country, particularly after having represented it in government, Abe replied: "I did think about it, but in the end I thought that there was nothing wrong with holding the United States to its own best standards and best principles." That, in my view, is a very deep form of patriotism.

Michelle Obama expressed the pride in America that so many of us feel now that we are able to show ourselves and the world that we are making huge strides toward our commitment to human equality by nominating an African-American as a presidential candidate, a man who attracts crowds of Americans of every creed and color and who energizes a new generation of Americans to plunge into the democratic process. And not just Obama's candidacy -- Hillary's too. Both candidates reminded the world of the things that many of us love most about our country -- our diversity, our willingness to recognize and conquer the obstacles we have ourselves created as barriers to success in our society, and our capacity for renewal. Living abroad throughout the primary season, I talked to many Americans who felt that they could hold their heads higher as they traveled around the world, because at least in presidential politics we are coming closer to practicing what we preach.

We still have a long way to go. Just this week we were told once again that the interrogation practices that some of our interrogators have been using against detainees were techniques that the Chinese practiced on our own soldiers during the Korean War. We long denounced these techniques as torture, until some of our government lawyers, to our eternal shame, decided that "torture" required imminent death or organ failure. Acknowledging that shame in no way in no way diminishes us as a country or a people. It is simply the necessary first step toward setting things right. That is a process, fueled by honesty and self-criticism, that we can be proud of.