Much is being made in recent days about Obama sporting the flag pin again after dismissals of its relationship to his true feelings of patriotism. Although he’s wearing the pin, he’s still playing down its importance. Here’s what he said this week …
“I haven’t been making such a big deal about it. Others have. Sometimes I wear it, sometimes I don’t,” Obama said. “We were talking with a group of veterans yesterday. Over the last several weeks people have been handing me flag pins. I thought it was appropriate.”
Is this pandering or has Obama ventured into the reality-based thinking of presidential politics? Not wearing the pin fits in nicely with Obama’s attempt to get beyond symbols and slogans and focus on real issues. Here’s what he said in Oct ’07 when first asked about wearing it:
“The truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. 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 I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe what will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”
Coming from a politician – and one running for president no less — this is a dangerious statement. He didn’t forget to wear it; he was taking a principled stand against wearing it by telling the American people that a symbol is a “substitute” rather than a true expression of his patriotism. But as a man of faith, how could Obama be so blind to the importance of symbols?
Symbols have been used since the ancients to bond a society behind a common cause and to motivate them for war against their enemies. From the Celtic Cross, the Nazi Swastica (originally a Hindu and Buddhist symbol) and the Jewish Star of David, symbols are meant to instill both comfort and fear. Even today, Israel is fighting for the recognition of the Red Star of David to be used by their international humanitarian agencies instead of the Red Cross or Red Cresent, which unlike the “Jewish star,” are religious symbols recognized under the articles of the Geneva Convention. And remember Abbie Hoffman’s ironic use of the American flag shirt? Man, did that piss a lot of people off in the 60s!
After the start of the Iraq War there were towns in the U.S. in which its citizens thought you were unpatriotic if you didn’t have a “Support our troops” bumper sticker or flag outside your door. Many would argue that putting a $2 sticker on your car isn’t true support. But the symbol trumps logic. And, Republicans are really good at taking advantage of (some might say pandering to people’s attachment to) symbols. Let’s look at a short list of purely symbolic legislation that they’ve used to bludgeon well-meaning Democrats over the last few years:
-Voting to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance” even though it was added much later, during the McCarthy-era anti-Commie panic
-A flag burning amendment to the Constitution
-Allowing the 10 Commandments to be featured in government buildings
The list goes on and on. Obama was equating wearing the flag pin with those purely symbolic fights and he had a point: what about affordable healthcare, ending the War, providing opportunities for the poor? Weren’t gestures like flag pins and bumper stickers taking the discussion away from these more important issues? Maybe, but he was missing the broader view of the potency of symbols. Like his initial handling of the Reverand Wright issue, he was being extremely naive about the power of images to influence public opinion.
Before you can start convincing people to get behind you, first you’ve got to recognize the importance of the symbols they hold dear: God, flag (even when it’s teeny, tiny) and Country. It is no coincidence that his failure to convince people of his dedication to these three are often the stated reasons for his lack of support among white working class voters (he has the “wrong” God/preacher, won’t salute the flag, and his wife disses the country). After looking at his exit poll numbers this week, maybe Obama has finally gotten religion on the subject.
Now that he’s getting the importance of symbols maybe he can come up with a few of his own to convince people to get on his side when it comes time to debate John McCain on the real issues.