Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 6, 2008

How America Got Its Soul Back

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, I was pleased, but I didn’t weep tears of joy like many of his other supporters. I knew that at present, the world is cheering for a symbol. The reality will be much more difficult to achieve.

No, I cried this morning. It wasn’t Obama that did it. It was looking at photos of how people around the world reacted to Obama’s victory. Tears. Cheers. Dancing in the streets. In Paris. Berlin. London. Athens. Beijing. New Delhi. Jakarta. In the old world and the new. In rich countries and poor. Everywhere that they’d heard about it, they wept with joy, overcome by the immensity of the moment.

It reminded me of something that I once believed, but had long ago put away as a childish delusion. It’s the belief that America is more than just a country. America is a moral ideal.

It transcends politics, nationality, culture, language, religion, and economics. It’s the belief that every person counts. That every life has infinite importance. That every person deserves fair treatment — and maybe even better than fair, the kind of treatment that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” It’s the belief that justice is more than merely a word. That law should protect the poor and powerless just as much as the rich and powerful. That peace should be the norm and war only a last resort.

Looking at those photos, I cried. I cried for what my country has always meant to me. It took people in other countries to remind me. They knew. They still believed. I was the one who had faltered.

And then I reached down deep into my heart. I opened the lock on the toybox where I had placed childish things. I reached in and I took out my America, shining and beautiful and glorious as it ever was. I put it in front of me, never again to be locked away.

The road ahead will be difficult. But at least we once again have a road, and a worthy destination: a place called “America.”

Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as credit and URL ( are included.


  1. I was pleased with Obama’s victory too. And I do feel it puts the US back on a more sensible footing. But I feel you’ve taken the wrong message from it. It’s BECAUSE the US was behaving as more than a land of mortal men that the rest of the world was getting fed up. It’s the sense that the US is about to recover its humanity, hubris, and sensibility that has the world so happy… not that a torch has been lit on a hill the rest of us can never aspire to. Please, put that out of your mind. It neither does your country real service, nor does it give due credit to the rest of humanity.

    And how I dearly wish we could break you of the unfortunate habit of referring to your country as “America”. America is a hemisphere, two continents. I live in America; I’m every bit as American as you are — I live in Canada. By calling your country “America” to the exclusion of the rest of us, you rob hundreds of millions of people of our birthright. It’s our name too. Germany isn’t “Europe”, China isn’t “Asia”, and the United States isn’t “America”… it’s just “OF America”.

  2. Questions of meaning are subjective. “Canada,” to me, means a fine country with many qualities that I wish the United States would emulate. “America,” to me, means the ideals of justice and compassion that I enumerated in my article.

    One of my brothers, who came to America from the former USSR at the age of nine, feels as I do but even more strongly. Judging by how people around the world reacted to President Obama’s election, it seems that many of them also share my sentiments.

    Deservedly or not, America is a symbol to billions of people. I am relieved that it can once again be a symbol of justice and opportunity rather than a symbol of aggression and torture.

  3. I do understand what you mean; I once had such feelings about the US myself, long ago. But over the years I’ve come to see that these ideals are shared and championed by the entire civilization — the one your blog subtitles in celebration of — not just, or even particularly, the United States (for instance, it wasn’t the US who voluntarily went to war to uphold them in 1939 — it was France and the British Empire). The US has definitely had good press — and why not; it generated most of it itself. I do want to see the US back on track with the rest of us. But as a partner now, rather than in the role of a Roman patron. I think for many people in the past generation, the figurehead of Westernism in its highest aspirations has passed to the EU, and it’s going to be hard for the US to wrangle that back. Obama has his work cut out for him in a land where the world watches as Texas and Florida compete to see who can kill the most prisoners, the first answer in the hearts of many to any international dispute is “send in the troops”, five times Britain’s population has 135 times its firearms homicide rate, finances are deregulated to let bankers legally pull scams that would have made con men blush 40 years ago, and the Fed’s answer to spiraling debt is to devalue it by running the presses 24/7.

    There’s hope in the world connected with the election, yes, but I think you might be overestimating it or the nature of it. I knew things would keep getting worse if McCain got elected. My hope, and the hopes of most of the people I know, is that with Obama, things won’t get any worse. That he’ll be able to hold the line, stop the decay. Even then, he’s got dark forces to contend with bent on keeping the US spiky and unpredictable.

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