The Olympics and the Battle for the Soul of Patriotism 

Rooting for American and rooting for the world.

You have to admit that the Olympics was captivating. Watching the best physical specimens of our species is extraordinary. Our local queen of the backstroke, Natalie Coughlin, has been superlative. And who cannot be awed by Usain Bolt, setting a record in the 100-meter dash, even though he eased up well before crossing the finish line; and then setting a record in the 200 as well? Or Michael Phelps, he of eight gold medals, who was one of several athletes who looked like a man among boys. Or the Japanese softball pitcher Yukiko Ueno who threw 28 innings in two days to beat the US women. Even those who preach the evils of television have found themselves in front of their sets amazed at the spectacle.

But as usual, the games have raised a number of contentious issues, including that of American patriotism. Recently I was watching the games with friends when the question came up: should every American want the US to win every event? Are you being unpatriotic if you don't root for all our athletes? Is this part of what is meant by love it or leave it? The question is especially acute if you think that recent actions of the American government have made the world a meaner and more dangerous place. Take the issue of Tibet, which is important to many East Bay residents. Are you an unpatriotic American if you root for Dayron Robles, the Cuban sprinter who signed Amnesty International's petition urging Chinese President Hu Jintao to find peace in Tibet and protect freedom of religion and opinion, over American athletes who did not? (Robles' coach later claimed that Robles did not sign the petition, but refused to allow reporters access to the sprinter to talk with him about it.)

After this discussion, I came across Kobe Bryant and the Wall Street Journal editorial writers telling us that to be real patriotic Americans one must cry America über alles. It seems that Bryant told an NBC reporter on August 15 that the US is "the greatest country in the world. It has given us so many great opportunities, and it's just a sense of pride we have that you say, 'You know what? Our country is the best.'" Now this is the same Kobe who just ten days before had said that he would be happy to leave the US to play basketball in Europe if he was paid $50,000,000 a year over there. "I'd probably go," he was quoted as saying. "Like Milan or something like that, where I grew up or something like that. ... Peace out. Do you know any reasonable person that would turn down 50 [million dollars]?"

The Wall Street Journal folks gushed at Bryant's greatest country comment, criticizing anyone who might think that he said it as part of a marketing campaign to clean up his image. "To the kind of Americans who consider themselves primarily 'citizens of the world,' nationalism at the Olympics is déclassé, even embarrassing," the editorial said. "We're with Kobe."

I don't think there is anything wrong with being a citizen of the world and an American citizen. There is simply no reason to say that we are the best and others aren't. Life, love, and respect do not need to be zero-sum games. Just as I love my family but don't hate other families, I can love my fellow Americans without disrespecting those of other countries. Being a patriotic American does not mean that we cannot criticize our country when we are 32nd in infant morality, 9th in adult literacy, 12th in student reading ability, and 37th in healthcare quality. I am not proud that we are first in CEO to worker-pay ratio (531:1) when the second-highest country, Brazil, is 57:1. As James Baldwin wrote, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

This battle for the soul of patriotism is going to be an important part of the presidential campaign. Ever since the invention of the nation state at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the issue of nationalism and who is "us" and how we should deal with "them" has bedeviled Western civilization. Why should we define "us" as only those carrying the same passport as we do? This issue is especially sensitive today as the American Century fades and our nation starts to become just one of the crowd. John McCain is going to make his brand of patriotism a campaign issue, and Barack Obama will have some difficulty with it among undecided voters. The candidates recently dueled on this issue at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Florida. Whether Obama's line that "smart" patriotism is better than McCain's "we are number one" patriotism will carry the day in the swing states remains to be seen.

And for me, as much as I dislike the actions of this administration, and frankly many before them, I must admit that I root for every American. But if the Chinese beat us in the medal count, I will not be embarrassed.


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