11/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama the Movement Redefines Patriotism

Well I don't blame Michelle one single bit! I said the same thing she did the other night to my husband Peter, as we watched Barack Obama on TV delivering his funny, satirical speech.

'For the first time in my life, I feel proud to be an American!' I couldn't believe this blurt belonged to me. Watching a latte colored man with a whacky sounding name become the new face of America has derailed the America I thought I knew.

But I'm incensed that people are critical of Michelle's comment. If you were born poor and black in America, wouldn't your inner radar for injustices be higher than if you were wealthy and white? What is patriotism supposed to be - genetic? Isn't it learned or earned?

Last Wednesday in Leesburg, Virginia, when the roar of approval died down among 30,000 people listening to Obama, I turned to a black man standing next to me and asked, 'What do you think Obama as president will actually do for the black community?'

'This isn't about the black community!' he said. 'It's about all of us, you and me.' His eyes looked watery; I suddenly realized how much Obama's speech had moved him. 'You have to understand, race doesn't matter in this. Obama has a white mother and a black father and that means he's as much you as he is me.'

'But do you think the urban poor relate to him? Do you think Obama is actually addressing their needs?'

The man admonished me for missing the point. 'After 9/11 everybody was nice to each other for like two weeks, then it disappeared. What Obama brings is unity.'

'Obama is more than a candidate,' said another black man. 'He is a movement! He's going to bring the world together.'

During primary school I used to lay awake at night, wondering what I was meant to be - an American or a Jew. Eventually I decided I related to being American more than being Jewish. But crises during my early years - Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War, Nixon's impeachment - drove patriotism right down the flagpole. Like Reverend Wright, I too feel outrage when the ideals of this country are trampled on by ignorance.

Can the Obama phenomena really change our way of thinking? As the crowd ambled back to town, I joined small groups of black people and repeated my question. 'How is Obama going to make a difference in your life?' A young girl who works as a nanny said she's inspired to find a way to go to college. A man with a screen door business said he just laid off two of his four workers, but feels certain his company will fare better with Obama.

A man from the Veterans Administration said, 'I'm thinking about coming out of retirement just so I can be part of the work force during Obama's leadership.'

'I'm 59 and a half,' said his wife, 'and thirty years ago my father told me we'd never see a black man be president in my lifetime.' She shook her head with amazement and pride.

When I went to England in 1985, like most newly arrived American students I cringingly retooled to a society with no diet coke, good coffee available only on one London street, and bus drivers constantly reminding me to say please and thank you. Eventually I accepted that good manners and low levels of caffeine kept people on a small island from clobbering each other. But another advantage occurred to me over the next decade and a half there. I began to like waking up everyday in a country that doesn't blame the have-nots for their failures; where trickle down economics is not considered a reliable plan to help the poor; where the rich can be counted on to revolt against a tax plan that ignores the disadvantaged; where miniscule details are not allowed to stop policy changes from occurring with sweeping rapidity. The very core of British society that Americans love to hate - the class system - is what inspired me most. Tories and Labour both acknowledge class divisions, and legislate accordingly. By time Tony Blair came on the scene, I scrambled to become a dual citizen so I could cast my vote.

Now back in America, for me, McCain's mantra - 'We won't spread the wealth around!' - sounds like complete lunacy. And the people who are chanting these words - Joe the Plumbers - are the ones whose families have nothing to lose and everything to gain, by creating a social safety net. Just as England is grappling with the fact that free health care for all may no longer be viable, the US is realizing that costly health care for some, is unsustainable for the nation as a whole. The individualist's Republican battle-cry is wearing thin.

'It took one single robocall,' a former right-winger told me. 'That call disgusted me so much that I picked up the phone and told the RNC I'm going to do something I've never done before: give money to a democrat and vote for him!'

I understand her disgust with the way politics can be here. When Shock and Awe was unleashed on Iraq, like many Americans, I felt outrage. Frustrated and incensed, homesick for my adopted country, I announced to Peter that I planned to tear up my American passport on national TV.

'Who needs this? I don't want to live in a country where the majority of people aren't marching every day against this war!'

'Who's gonna care if you tear up your passport?' Peter said. 'What is this supposed to achieve?'
'Bush needs to know that not everyone in the world thinks America is so great!'

'But nobody's going to watch you tear up your passport on cable TV,' Peter said. 'You may as well walk naked to Canada.'

Five years on, I haven't walked naked to Canada, and I quelled the urge to do away with a document worth keeping. Now, a new kind of shock and awe is in the air. I felt it the evening I met my younger cousin's girlfriend, a latte-colored woman studying law at Georgetown University. As she sat up tall, and cheerfully described her mixed-race, working class background to me, I suddenly realized that her pride would not have been quite so strong or quite so emphatic - quite so Michelle-like - one or two years ago.

Maybe a new, palpable pride is brewing here now. It's not the old, genetic kind of patriotic mandate. If it has to be called patriotism, it's the kind that's genuine and earned; just the way Michelle said it.