I'm not going to pretend I knew what Michelle Obama meant when, at a rally in Milwaukee, she said that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country." She later said she meant she was proud of people "rolling up their sleeves" and "trying to figure this out," which I take to mean she wasn't so sure either.
The comment itself, of course, was woefully misguided, though, in my view, more for its vagueness and carelessness than for what it did or did not reveal about Obama's national loyalty. What interested me more was what the ensuing brouhaha revealed about "pride" as both a word and a concept. As the lyrics to most country songs will attest, having "pride in your country" can be as easy as buying a new truck or as harrowing as serving in war. Given the range of options, how could Obama not have accessed this oh-so-accessible feeling in the 26 years she's been an adult?
Maybe she suspects that pride, like stereo equipment or C-pluses in college, has become too cheap for its own good. After all, we seem to be patting ourselves on the back for achievements that, in a society like ours, should simply be expected. We are "proud of our country" when, for example, citizens join together to pile sandbags against flood waters or house their neighbors after a fire. But isn't that just part of basic human decency? The preoccupation with shallow expressions of pride bears an unnerving resemblance to the parental overreaction to the cries of a spoiled child who has been praised for every little thing.
Maybe -- just maybe -- it has something to do with the baby boomers. By sheer force of numbers and the dumb luck of being teenagers or young adults during the most influential period in modern American history, the boomers, regardless of their political leanings, managed to convince themselves and everyone else that they not only dominate the culture, they are the culture. As a result, feeling pride in your country became unnervingly indistinguishable from feeling pride in yourself. The lesson: Patriotism can be as simple as taking a glimpse in the mirror.
There are plenty of reasons people like Barack and Michelle Obama might not define pride in quite those terms -- class background and race (and critical thinking skills) among them -- and therefore maybe their view of pride differs. A subtler yet more salient reason may have to do with how old they are. Though the Obamas may technically be baby boomers (Barack was born in 1961; Michelle was born in 1964, which is generally considered the cutoff), they are too young to occupy the same psychological sphere as bona fide boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush.
Whereas those folks were in their early 20s during the Summer of Love, Michelle Obama was just 3 years old. During the sexual revolution, both Obamas were pre-pubescent. During much of the Wall Street boom of the 1980s, they were students. By the time they married in 1992, AIDS had reduced the concept of free love to a misnomer of lethal proportions. This is hardly the boomer narrative.
Writing in the Atlantic magazine in December, Andrew Sullivan suggested that Barack Obama, "simply by virtue of when he was born," is the best hope for uniting a country that remains obsessed with the cultural and political fissures that took root in the 1960s. I would take that a step further. The world views of Barack and Michelle Obama are more than just the result of not being baby boomers, they're the result of not being raised by boomers either.
Obama may be quoted in Sullivan's article as saying, "When I think of baby boomers, I think of my mother's generation," but he's a bit off. His mother was born in 1942. As groovy as she may have been, she was not, in a strict sense, a boomer. And guess what? It shows. As highly as Obama appears to think of himself, he's too earnest and industrious to fairly be called entitled. That word better suits many of his boomer counterparts -- and, one day, their praise-addicted children.
Michelle Obama's mother, for her part, is 70 years old. And although it's easy to imagine her cringing at her daughter's lead-footed comment about pride, it's just as easy to imagine that she might have had an indirect hand in it. We know that Michelle Obama was raised with high expectations and grew into a high-achieving woman who makes formidable demands on herself and others. And while that's due in large part to the opportunities afforded by her country, I'd surmise it also has something to do with her rigorous standards for pride itself.
Being proud, after all, is not a substitute for having high standards, but the natural result of meeting or exceeding them. It's a strategy that works for nations as well as people.