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Hello, Obama: a moment and movement

I’ve never been much for patriotism. Never understood what the heck people were talking about, frankly, when they said they wanted to serve their country.

I started trying to change my country long before I was ever proud of it. Perhaps I learned too much honest history too early, or maybe it just never made sense to me. Either way, I worked on campaigns but never felt much of anything at the sight of the stars and stripes. National anthem? Meh.

Until this week.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., ticketless but determined to see the transition firsthand. Recovering from a cold, swathed in layer after layer, I only made the final decision to go on Saturday, and left Sunday morning.

A quick Metro ride (complete with commemorative Obama Metro pass) and my friends and I were outside the Washington Monument, staring down at a mass of people packed in all the way up to the Lincoln Memorial. Giant television screens lined the Mall, and people sang to themselves as they waited.

The “We Are One” concert started them off, the feelings. I found myself photographing women dancing, holding American flags. I sang along to patriotic songs sung by yesterday’s pop idols.

Monday morning, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was the National Day of Service and I jokingly asked friends who weren’t volunteering what they’ve done to serve their country. And suddenly found myself defending against the same kinds of arguments I’d have made, months earlier.

“I just don’t understand feeling the need to serve your country.”

Well, all I can say to that is that I watched over 13,000 people make 85,000 care packages for soldiers on Monday, and it felt good. People stood in line in the freezing weather to wait for their chance to do something for someone else.

Service doesn’t have to be military. Inspiration doesn’t have to come from prayer or a rock’n’roll song.

And at that event, at RFK Stadium in Washington, I met Freddy. Freddy was an African-American man who was born just a few miles from where I went to high school. When he was a kid, the beach down the street from my family business was the only beach Freddy could go to–the ones closer to him were whites-only.

The last time Freddy was in Washington, D.C. was for Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech, 46 years ago. And on Martin Luther King Day, Freddy and I got tickets to Obama’s inauguration.

I don’t like taking one symbolic black person and making them speak for everyone, but standing with Freddy made me feel connected. Obama’s inauguration was a day for him as well as for me, for young people and old who’ve never known what it’s like to feel like they’re part of their country.

People are always looking for connection, for something to be a part of. Sports teams and music scenes create community, as does political action. I’ve understood feeling connected through collective action for years now. And so why not extend that to country?

The Obama iconography can seem strange and cultish at first, but then you realize that the stylized Obama posters don’t just stand for a man. They symbolize a moment, a movement, and all of us.

The departure of George W. Bush. picture ⓒ Sarah Jaffe
The departure of George W. Bush. picture ⓒ Sarah Jaffe

This is our time. Time to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Time to learn a new kind of patriotism, one that isn’t about bombs and exceptionalism, and is instead about connection.

Connection to each other, to our country, and to the world.

As two million or more of us stood on the Mall in front of the Capitol building and listened to Obama’s inaugural address, we heard him say, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them— that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

He is right. We are redefining so many things right now. This time is what we make of it. Not Barack Obama, but all of us. All over the world.

I could make fun of John Roberts’ fumble of the Oath of Office, or Aretha Franklin’s hat, or Elizabeth Alexander’s poem. I could complain about the cold and the crowds. But I choose not to do that. Not today, one day after seeing the person I worked for over a year to elect stand and place his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

That’s what his inauguration meant. It meant letting go of my protective covering of cynicism and allowing myself to hope. I’ve talked about taking my country back for years, but I never really understood how it would feel if I did.

So far, it feels pretty good.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She’s interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.