Obama and the Flag

Matthew left a comment on my post that I decided to respond to in separately on this subject–as well as a new post on his blog up today covering roughly the same ground.

[Sidenote:  I think it’s pretty uncool that he juxtaposes his comments on the Obama flag issue with video of people trying to burn a US flag–in 1976 no less. I’m not saying he equates the two, but I still think it’s has a smearing quality about it, I find distasteful].

Symbols matter. I get that. I’m studying to be a priest. Symbols like the flag, which is why I don’t support burning one, even if you disagree intensely with the policies and actions of your country.

MD writes concerning symbolism:

It is why, not Obama’s lapel pin itself, but what it and his words about it symbolize, are important as hell. And why Obama should be roundly criticized for the symbolism of his words and actions, until he apologizes genuinely.

I’m not entirely sure what the “it” refers to here because in a recent comment he also stated that Obama brought the issue on himself not simply by saying that patriotism is in deeds not in flag lapels and leaving it at that (which I took to mean such a move would have been permissible). But here MD almost seems like he’s going back and saying that precise thing. But I don’t quite get that one. Is the “it” the symbolism of not wearing the lapel itself or not having worn out after having made a comment that (is interpreted to mean) that wearing one is false patriotism?

So the words, which can be found from the link embedded in the above quotation.

What Obama said:

“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”

“Instead,” he said, “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.”

So if he would have just said the final sentence that would seem to be sufficient and non-controversial.

It’s the prior paragraph that caused the upset. Like the recent “bitter” comments when Obama goes into professorial mode and he’s talking out loud, he ends up digging himself into holes. No argument there. It’s not entirely clear what he is trying to say–like the bitter comments–but whatever it is it doesn’t sound good on first exposure. And one of Obama’s main weaknesses is that he has a know-it-all side that is probably being expressed in part here.

To be fair, if he did apologize for the comments it wouldn’t matter not to the blowhards of right wing talk radio. Then he would be labeled weak and a flip-flopper and so it goes in the stupid inane debate.

I wish we had a political culture where a guy could think out loud, try to initiate a conversation as opposed to always having to give talking points, and if he makes a mistake, then he/we learn, a conversation starts, instead of “denouncing” and “rejecting” and “apologizing” and flogging yourself in public. Just stupid in my book.

But that not being the case, we have what we have, so let’s see if I can tease this one out.

1)9/11 happens. He wears the pin. As is well known he has been a strong and constant supporter of the mission in Afghanistan. He doesn’t comment on why he wore it then, so I could only speculate, but anyway he did.

2)Then we shift into build up to Iraq War mode (circa late 2002, early 2003). I couldn’t find the question he was responding to but his answer suggests that it was related to the Iraq War (“since that’s what we’re talking about”). Obama was against the War and always has thought it was wrong (pace Clinton). I think he has garbled his anger about what he considered to be false patriotism in gung-ho support for the (as he saw it) ignorant War in Iraq with the flag. And those are different or at least could be and his comments don’t reflect that distinction. Minus that I can see how people could be offended, though I think this has been blown out of proportion to say the least.

One thing people on the right who get upset about a statement like this miss in my book is he could have very well been attacking his own war hawk Democrats who starting wearing flags like they were going out of style because of fear of looking “soft” on national security and having a “Come to Jesus” American patriotism moment as the President was (unbelievably and disgustingly imo) using the attack as a political weapon to humiliate opponents.

Worth recalling that it was in this time (the time frame Obama lays out) that people on national television were seriously accused of supporting terrorism and aiding and abetting the enemy (a charge punishable by death not so recently in our past) because they did not jump on the Iraq bandwagon.

That might be behind his “true patriotism=speaking out on issues of national security”. i.e. That people who claimed to be true patriots lead us into a war (under false pretenses) that has undermined US national security and yet they still get to claim the patriotism high ground when in fact if by patriotism you mean simply strengthening the country’s security, then they are not patriots, they are in fact the opposite of patriots and someone who got the war right (and would have left the country safer) turned out to be the better patriots.

Now if that interpretation is correct, that’s an incomplete definition of patriotism at best. But one that would has validity that I don’t think should be discounted.

A personal anecdote which will go a little far of field but I promise to bring it back to this issue. I remember in the run up to the war vividly and it being for me a time of deep cognitive and emotional dissonance. For one I was called a traitor and someone who supported terrorism because I was against the War–who on numerous occasions would point out the rather obvious fact it seemed to me that Saddam Hussein while an evil dictator did not attack the US and that we couldn’t afford 2 wars simultaneously and that we should finish one before starting another–i.e. attack the organization that actually attacked the US. In response I would be told what then about Saddam’s torture chambers? Which of course were evil and real but not clear what they had to do with al-Qaeda, NYC and the Pentagon.

When I encountered that kind of emotional rhetoric it was jarring. It was clear that logical analysis was being de-emphasized (to put it charitably) in favor of what seemed to me in many quarters, just a pure desire for revenge (understandable if not excusable). Bush who had already decided coming into office to start the War (as is well documented) after having lied about his foreign policy platform (the “humble” part not the “no nation building” part which we haven’t done in either Afghanistan or Iraq), parlayed that revenge feeling as a means to cow tow the Democrats and anti-war independents & conservatives into submission prior to the vote.

In that climate, the “flag” issue conflated with support for the war generally could and did become a cover for this kind of revenge-based mojo.

In this read (and I claim no esoteric authority for this one) I’m putting the emphasis on the subordinate clause modifying true patriotism: speaking out on issues of national security. There were a lot of people–particularly within his own party–who had serious doubts about the war but did not publicly say so because they were afraid of the backlash.

Now where he would do well when asked again is to say that not everyone who wears the flag is therefore caught up in this cover for true patriotism. Obviously he needs to communicate that point and actually make clear he gets that distinction. Again I read it mostly in light of the intra-Democratic politics of the period up to the war, but that A)might be way off and B)even if somehow partially correct isn’t obviously clear to the average listener I suppose.

i.e. That the context of 2002-2003 is not the context of 2007/2008. His statements may have been right to a degree then, but may no longer be as valid.

The easiest way I think to parse it is to say that there are different kinds of patriotism–if you want call them liberal and conservative. He is clearly very patriotic which is why all these right-wing smears about how he really sees the presidency for his own glorification are so dumb (admitting that like anybody that guy has uber-ambition. He’s a politician. And he has high ideals as well, being like any human of mixed motives).

Recall when Obama won Iowa the crowd starting chanting USA–when have you ever heard that before with Democrats? I remember that blowing my mind watching the coverage. As one commenter put it it was a freeing thing. It was great for him/her to chant USA because it didn’t feel like the Republican/conservative meaning of it. [More on that crucial point to follow]. Almost like it was purified. Read the comment here.

“We love our country as much as anyone, but that particular chant has always seemed a little jingoistic/nationalistic. Not anymore.”

But when Obama responds and defends his patriotism it is the this country gave my father, gave me an opportunity to serve, to achieve in life, I could get nowhere else. It’s a vision of the country worthy of love because of cross-racial, opportunities, freedom of speech and expression, the history of people writing their own reality (Civil Rights, Progressive Era, Lincoln & Abolitionism). You might even call it “Liberal Nationalism”.

That’s all nice from those he is supposed to convince, but what they really want is to put it really really crudely (pardon the crudeness) “We’re #1”. (National Greatness Conservatism versus National Liberalism in ’08? McCain-Obama) And that he is never going to give because frankly while he can (and does believe) talk about America as the greatest nation on earth, it’s not the really the same.

I can dig the “We’re #1” thing. I don’t agree with it obviously but it’s a free country. I get where it comes from. I grew up in an extended and nuclear family with lots of that–Obama I don’t think did so I don’t sense he gets that worldview.

Which all things taken into consideration, to me, is not the hugest deal in the world. I don’t equate one version of patriotism with “real” Americans or mind of the Founders, and so forth. It’s kind of political fundamentalism at its worst from the right and contemptible narcissism from the left (at its worst). Obama is not the worst on this front. I think he’s misguided in some ways, but not looking down his nose. Just wrong on some stuff.

My dream would be to just end these debates and just reach some point where both sides say: You got your kind of patriotism, I got mine (tomato, tomato), let’s call the whole thing off.

But that ain’t coming anytime soon. Nor is it even possible. A guy can still dream though can’t he?

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Published in: on April 18, 2008 at 7:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] war on terror | Tags: Barack Obama, Liberal Nationalism, Michael Lind |   I mentioned in the previous post on Obama & flag that–and I haven’t seen anyone make this argument before but that […]


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