Several times while listening to President Barack Hussein Obama's inaugural speech yesterday I found myself tearing up—at times the tears rolling copiously down my cheeks. These were tears of joy and relief, and of catharsis—the polar opposite of what I felt that wretched day in 2003 when George Bush announced the imminent invasion of Iraq. My tears had very little to do with the much ballyhooed succession of an African American to the Presidency, though the profundity of that achievement and it's meaning for race relations in America cannot be underestimated. My tears, like my reason for supporting and voting for Obama in the first place, had nothing to do with race. They had everything to do with the fact that a truly good, principled, and extremely capable human being was taking the reins of power as the leader of the free world, and--in the course of his speech--he was laying out a vision and a set of values that resonated so powerfully with my own deeply held values and ideals.
During Obama's short talk my feelings about the United States of America went through a radical transformation—a transformation that had begun with his capturing the nomination of the Democratic Party last summer. Although I had never joined the ranks of flag burners in the 1960's, I shared much of their sense of shame about my country and it's activities around the world. Sadly, the war in Viet Nam was only the beginning of my disillusionment with the US and the enormously powerful corporations whose agendas our government supported or allowed. How, I wondered, could a force for such good in the world have been turned into the vehicle for such selfish and narrow-minded ends? How could a country based on such noble ideals resort to such ignoble actions: supporting rightwing terrorists, assassinating foreign leaders, undermining freedom and justice around the world wherever it stood in the way of our corporate ("national") interests?
My disillusionment devolved to cynicism with the election and subsequent illegal and unethical behavior of Richard Nixon, then to disappointment in the Carter administration (though my hopes and my admiration for Jimmy Carter remained high), and to horror at the culture of greed and exploitation ushered in by Ronald Reagan and continued by George H.W. Bush. The Clinton years, too, failed to restore in me any feeling of national pride. His embrace of conservative issues like "welfare reform" and his whole-hearted advocacy for unbridled free trade (with no constraints on labor and environmental abuses) further undermined the values I cherished as "American." The stolen election of 2000 and the Bush/Cheney administration's eight years of blatantly criminal actions—most notably the preemptive invasion of Iraq and the illegal detention and torture of prisoners taken in the course of that idiotic adventure—erased any lingering sense of pride in my country.
But that all changed with President Obama's inaugural address. Finally, we have a leader in the White House who has a powerful moral and ethical compass, who truly understands the essential values of freedom, respect, dignity, and fairness, and who sees America's security and well-being as dependent on the security and well-being of people and nations everywhere. Obama's speech gave me hope that my country will no longer manipulate and exploit other nations with a fist of oppression. Rather, with generosity, dialogue, and respect for other cultures and the international rule of law we will set an example and nurture the ascendancy of the very values upon which our constitution and our way of life is founded.
I know that I am not alone in these sentiments. Like Michelle Obama, I feel pride in my country for the first time since my childhood. It is not the pride of arrogance. It is the pride of humility. And yesterday, for the first time in my adult life, I found myself wearing an American flag and singing the Star Spangled Banner with heart-felt enthusiasm. Is it any wonder that I cried?