I was thinking off and on most of last week about what Michelle Obama said: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country."
Right-wing talk radio loved it, of course. Even Bill O'Reilly, less predictably right wing than the bulk of them, offered to "go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama" if "there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels."
It got me thinking because I have this odd thing about pride. It's a deadly sin, of course, maybe the deadliest, and it always strikes me as a bit odd when I find it in obituaries -- which I often do: He was proud of his bowling trophies; she was proud of her grandchildren, etc. It's never been clear to me why people would confess to that particular sin just as they are exiting the world.
Of course, there's pride, and then there's pride, and most people seem better able than me to keep the sin separate from the normal human emotion. My brothers and I were definitely raised old school: You don't brag, you don't put on airs, you're always humble and give credit to God and to others - never to yourself. I'm not saying I've always lived up to that (note the affected humility), but that's how I was raised. I still can't take a compliment well.
So her comment made me wonder when I've felt "really proud" of my country during my adult life. What Michelle Obama meant by "really" is open to debate, but I read it to mean without reservation or qualification. So feeling a bit of a catch in the throat when Old Glory parades by -- which actually has happened to me -- doesn't count in my book as "really" proud. Real pride engages both head and heart.
So what has made me "really" proud? I hit drinking age in the Army, and I wasn't proud to be a soldier. I had a low draft number, and I did my duty, but I didn't enjoy it, wasn't especially good at it and was glad to get out. Any pride I have felt has been strictly in retrospect.
That was followed pretty quickly by Richard Nixon's resignation, not a proud moment. Then there was the collapse of Vietnam, probably the lowest point in national pride in my lifetime. Then there was Reagan, who somehow failed to make me proud. He cut taxes, which may have been good policy but wasn't much to be proud of, then followed up with record deficits and the disasters of his second term.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed, the great event of my lifetime. O'Reilly and other talk show pundits focused on that as a source of American pride, and I see their point. But I don't remember feeling proud. I remember feeling thankful, amazed and relieved. But again, any pride I felt seemed to surface only later, especially after those same talk pundits tried to pass off the Soviet collapse as Reagan's personal achievement. It wasn't. It was something we all had a hand in, from every Joe Sixpack who paid taxes to a whole string of Republican and Democratic presidents, senators and representatives. And including GIs like me who guarded that lonely German border, a tiny but necessary role that I never saw Sean Hannity take on.
First Gulf War? A remarkable political and military achievement, but fundamentally a mismatch. Second Gulf War? Don't get me started.
Boil it down, and the things about America that have made me proudest are precisely the things that were denied to people like Michelle Obama for most of U.S. history: the Bill of Rights, tolerance of dissent, opportunity for all. So when she says that now she's "really" proud, maybe what she means is that for the first time, she has cast off the baggage that black people in this country have carried around as their special burden since its founding. If that's the case, then that sounds like cause for celebration, not criticism.