Sometimes I have to smile when American politicians talk as if they invented freedom, passing over the other democracies in the world that also paid for liberty with the blood of their forefathers. But even though freedom isn't American, no other country in the world symbolizes freedom like America.
The demonstrations that George W. Bush encountered in cities all over Europe were never essentially anti-American. They were the closest that Europeans could come to a call for the impeachment of George W. Bush. And it wasn't just Bush's troll-like foreign policy they were protesting. He was ruining America for all of us. Forget lack of political integrity, abuse of power and a questionable sense of justice. Under Bush, America wasn't even cool anymore.
President Obama's opponents like to dismiss his appeal to citizens of other nations by saying that they can't vote in American elections. But millions around the world did cast their vote last November. Not with a ballot, but with a faith that it's America, the one that gives hope to anyone 'yearning to breathe free', had not left itself to the history books. It's not like other nations are expecting the US to do all the heavy lifting, mind you, just to get back on the team and do what it does best. Inspire.
Like many people who love America, I wasn't born an American. I voted for the first time as an American citizen in this election. On the final day of the citizenship process, I stood hand over heart with 3,500 others in a giant aircraft hangar in Southern California, in between a middle-aged healthcare worker from Indonesia and a law student from China. As I looked at the men and women around me taking the Oath of Allegiance, I wondered how many stories of oppression and injustice had been written in their lives. These stories, I thought, are the lingua franca of the American dream.
I think it's difficult for those who were born Americans to understand what America really means to the people who were there that day, and for hundreds and thousands of Americans like them -- people for whom the loss of freedom is not theoretical. It's the immigrants who really know the fragility of liberty; how it can be won and lost, and won and lost again. For them freedom is not a parade. It's a flower in a storm.
My husband was born into a family of Russian immigrants in Los Angeles. He embodies everything I admire about this country, holding a passionate belief in the right of everyone to live and think as they choose and a determination to defend anyone who fights against injustice, including that of his own government. But at various moments during the Bush years I'd hear him mutter under his breath, "I want my country back" -- sometimes through barely fought-back tears (and often while watching re-runs of The West Wing). Bruce Springsteen said the same thing to a crowd in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 2nd 2008, on stage with Barack Obama. What might surprise many Americans is that millions of us around the world feel the same way. We want OUR America back -- the America that sends a message of hope to anyone who tries to speak truth to power; in Darfur or in Gaza; in Anbar Province or in Tibet; in Xinjiang or Delaware.
About Obama's message of change, conservative activist Grover Norquist said, "Obama thinks there's something wrong with us." Actually, the opposite is true. Obama seems to believe in Americans with a passion and this is why he entrusts them with the task to not only remember that their country is great but to be part of making it so. As he said in his inaugural speech, "Greatness is not a given. It must be earned." But he also knows that America has enormous responsibility beyond its borders, not because of its power or money, but because of what it stands for. "Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humanity and restraint," he said. "We are the keepers of this legacy." (The test of these sentiments simmers in Iran, where just one week earlier crowds of angry men took to the streets to protest US support for Israel, chanting "Death to Obama!")
Everyone is claiming Obama as their own, African-Americans, Africans, white liberals, gays, environmentalists; even some conservatives. I claim him for those of us who think of ourselves not just in terms of nationality, but as global citizens who believe that the office of the president of the United States can, simply put, help make the world a better place. In his inaugural address, President Obama sounded as if he understands this too. "Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
These words sound real good to me, but I have to reflect that they are probably meaningless to Palestinians, long given up on words like 'peace' and 'dignity', who on Inauguration Day were digging the bodies of their children out of the rubble caused by bombs from American-made planes. Yes, Mr. President, there is "work to be done".
Unlike the millions who have no expectations that a new US administration can change their world, we who choose to believe are bound to be disappointed. But I didn't vote for Obama because I thought he wouldn't make mistakes or because I thought he can fix everything that's broken. I wanted Obama because I think he believes in the America that we all so badly want to believe in -- the Aaron Sorkin/Gary Cooper America -- fighting for the underdog while still being the coolest guy in the room. And that's the America that the world and I got back on January 20th, 2009.
Rebecca Novick is an Anglo-American currently residing in India.