It is July 4th. For many U.S. citizens, this is a day to celebrate, to express pride in their country, to display their patriotism. I have never been a very patriotic person. There are many things I do not admire about U.S. culture – the egocentric world view that permeates and often poisons many international interactions; the acts of violence the country has carried out in defense of its national interests; the love of guns and the fierce protection of the idea that all citizens have the right to own them. These are not things I have ever felt like celebrating.
I clearly remember the first moment in my adult life when I felt a strong sense of optimism for the country and something like patriotism. It was the night Barack Obama was elected to his first term. I must admit that I was not a believer. I voted for him. I wanted so badly for him to win. But I did not believe he would. I was sure McCain would be elected and the Republican party would continue its devastating policies. I began to contemplate leaving the U.S.
Then Obama won. I was ecstatic and proud. The democratic process really does work, I thought. Obama had inspired people all over the country. He had told them that things could change and they had believed him. They had surged up and made it happen. They had elected the first black president and a man who was liberal, educated, passionate, and beautifully articulate. I started to believe as well. If this could happen, maybe the country could turn itself around and in time come to inspire patriotism in me.
But that’s not what happened. Over the years came a roller coaster of policies; some were great, others smelled like more of the same. I watched Obama accept a Nobel Peace Prize while simultaneously overseeing two wars. And in recent weeks, it has come to light that Obama extended National Security Agency programs put in place by George W. Bush to effectively spy on not only his own people but government officials in other countries. A president who expressed throughout 2 campaigns and 5 years in office that he believes strongly in transparency has now brought criminal charges against the self-professed leaker of information on the NSA programs, Edward Snowden. The U.S. has revoked his passport, and officials have stated publicly that there will be “consequences” for any country who aids Snowden or grants him asylum.
Yesterday, the Bolivian government claimed that their president, Evo Morales, was effectively “kidnapped” when his plane was denied permission to enter airspace of several European countries, diverted to Austria, and then searched under suspicion than Snowden was aboard. The U.S. has so far declined to comment on the incident and differing accounts have emerged from Bolivian and Austrian officials. But it appears that the leader of a country was stopped in transit and his rights violated to serve U.S. interests. Think for a moment if it had been Obama’s plane blocked, diverted, and searched. The U.S. would have considered it something close to an act of war. Obama has said he would not go out his way to capture Snowden:
I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker
No, we’ll just divert and search the equivalent of Air Force One. Nothing extraordinary.
Of course, Obama isn’t the only one to blame for the state of our nation. In fact, all things considered, I would still say he is one of the best presidents the U.S. has had, certainly in my lifetime. Responsibility also lies squarely with senators, congressmen, the Supreme Court, and citizens. After 20 children and 6 adults died last year in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, people said they had had enough. It was time for change. But just months later, the Senate rejected a plan that called for background checks for online and gun show sales. In this moment, I was proud of Obama’s reaction:
All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington…It came down to politics
Obama has vowed to continue his efforts to pass gun control. But he is fighting against powerful lobbying, strong public opinion on gun ownership rights, and politicians who are afraid of losing the support of their constituents. Gun sales have increased since Obama took office, and sky-rocketed in the days following the Newtown shooting. The U.S. has a strong gun culture. And it doesn’t seem ready to change, even in the face of such tragic events.
And what about personal freedoms? Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that portions of the Defense of Marriage Act were unconstitutional, clearing the way for gay marriage in states such as California. It was a moment to celebrate, and Obama was quick to show his support. But it should not be forgotten that the reason the victory was necessary was that laws governing who people can and cannot marry exist in this country. The Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law in 1996. In 2008, California voters approved a ban on gay marriage. A country that prides itself on freedom seeks to control this very personal decision. On a related note, I have neither the space nor the patience to detail all the ways in which the U.S. tries to control women’s decisions about their own bodies.
In the wake of the joy over the Supreme Court decision on DOMA, many people forgot that one day earlier the same court had struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While some homosexual couples were celebrating new-found freedoms, some ethnic minorities were confronting the very real possibility of voter discrimination. Obama lamented:
Today’s decision invalidating one of (the law’s) core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent
One step forward, two steps backward.
It is July 4th. And the country I allowed myself to believe might someday emerge has not. I am beginning to wonder whether it ever will. So today, I will not be raising a flag or singing the praises of my country. I wish I could. But I do not feel very much like celebrating.