Monday, October 08, 2007

"Fashion choice" and the meaning of patriotism

As a foreign correspondent living in London during the early ‘90s, I was always struck by the absence of patriotic display. The Union Jack flag flew from government buildings, but hardly anywhere else. Motorists didn’t plaster the flag on their bumpers; used car dealers didn’t fly it over their merchandise; politicians didn’t pin it to their lapels. I recall asking a Tory member of Parliament about all this, and, after initially looking bemused (his expression said, “Typically stupid American question”), he replied: “There is hardly a need for us to show off, because we rather prefer to fly the flag” – tapping chest – “in here.”

I thought of that exchange this weekend, after reviewing the particulars of the Barack Obama flag pin scandal, a transient fracas that prompted much huffing and puffing among the self-appointed custodians of our national iconography. Trivial as this incident ultimately may prove to be, it nevertheless tells us much about the patriotism divide on this side of the pond.

For those of you who didn’t track the chronology: Last Wednesday, a local TV reporter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa happened to notice that Obama wasn’t flying the flag on his suit jacket and decided to investigate further. (Obama hadn’t been wearing a flag pin for years, but local-affiliate TV people are not known for their preparation.) The reporter asked: “You don’t have the American flag pin on. Is this a fashion statement?”

Obama, rather than lapsing into the usual Democratic posture of hemming and hawing, decided to address the matter in a straightforward fashion: “You know, the truth is that, right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Oraq war, that (pin) became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is (about) speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security. I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great and, hopefully, that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

The Associated Press picked up his remarks, and, a day later, The Drudge Report went to work, conveniently fudging the time element by making it appear that Obama’s decision was brand new. (Drudge’s headline: “Obama Ditches American Flag Pin,” followed soon thereafter by “Obama Drops American Flag Pin.”) Meanwhile, also on Drudge day, Obama decided to amplify his previous remarks, and push back against his anticipated critics. At an Iowa campaign event last Thursday, he said:

“I haven’t probably worn that pin in a very long time…After awhile, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time. My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart…”

No matter; the defenders of public display were already in high dudgeon. That day on Fox News (big surprise), host Sean Hannity assailed Obama’s decision to go flagless: “What’s bothersome to me here is the American flag on your lapel ought not be politicized.” He was quickly seconded by his guest, former Virginia GOP leader Kate Obenshain, who decided that Obama, notwithstanding his stated concern for the treatment of our war veterans, was actually attacking the troops: “Our men and women are in harm’s way. Somebody who wants to be commander-in-chief should have pride in our country enough to wear the lapel, continue to wear the lapel pin on their jacket during this campaign.”

The next day, a blogger at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine reviewed Obama’s remarks and scoffed, “Wow. If Obama weren’t so sophisticated, we would say he just managed to give offense to millions of Americans who do proudly wear the flag on their lapels.” (In conservative parlance, the word sophisticated is used as a synomym for elitist effete intellectual liberal.)

Meanwhile, over at MSNBC, a GOP talking head named Brad Blakeman decided that the flag-free Obama was not merely undercutting his quest to be commander-in-chief. It was actually worse than that: “He’s running for patriot-in-chief…and if he chooses to take the flag off, it’s a fair issue (for criticism)…The United States flag is not a ‘fashion choice’…Say that to our soldiers who wear it on their uniforms. Do you think the flags on our soldiers’ uniforms are a fashion choice?” (Memo to Blakeman: Obama never described his decision as a “fashion choice.” That was just the TV guy’s glib terminology.)

In the broadest sense, there is a cultural gap between the way patriotism is practiced on the left and the right. Conservatives (unlike their counterparts in Britain) are quite comfortable with public exhibition, with the notion that we should loudly communicate – either in song, flag pins, decals, etcetera – our love of America to others who should feel compelled to reflexively acknowledge our national greatness. Liberals tend to shy away from the visceral, believing instead that patriotism is about asking difficult questions, expressing dissent, trying to close the gap between American promise and American performance. That’s the essence of what Obama was talking about; the backlash against Obama was the visceral impulse in action.

But, aside from this basic cultural divide, the visceral crowd overlooked a fundamental fact: Hardly any of the ’08 Republican candidates wear the flag pin, either.

Somehow, in their rush to assail Obama, they didn’t do their basic homework. At the most recent GOP debate that was attended by eight candidates, only one – Rudy Giuliani – wore a flag pin. Fred Thompson, the ninth candidate and debate absentee, is routinely photographed without a flag pin. Candidate Sam Brownback, the conservative Kansas senator, has a new book out – and he appears on the cover without a flag pin. Nor does John McCain generally wear a flag pin. I assume that Obama’s critics would not view those pin-free candidates as being ill-qualified for the job of patriot-in-chief.

What got Obama into trouble, at least with the right, was his insistence that patriotism should be about substance, not symbols; that politicians should not wrap themselves in symbolism and use that as a substitute for action. His notions might not play well on Fox News, but, at a time when most Americans believe we are heading in the wrong direction, they probably resonate elsewhere.