CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: America’s patriotism problem

The patriotism problem

Tobama-screenprint.jpghere were signs that Obama’s hard work and extensive television advertising were paying off: various polls showed the race tightening a bit. The talk-show muttering had migrated from Jeremiah Wright to Clinton’s Bosnian sniper-fire fantasy. Hordes of new voters were registering in Pennsylvania. It was not impossible that Obama would turn Clinton’s predicted victory into a closer-than-expected moral defeat.

But there was still something missing. I noticed it during Obama’s response to a young man who remembered how the country had come together after Sept. 11 and lamented “the dangerously low levels of patriotism and pride in our country, the loss of faith in our elected officials.” Obama used this, understandably, to go after George W. Bush. “Cynicism has become the hot stock,” he said, “the growth industry during the Bush Administration.” He talked about the Administration’s mendacity, its incompetence during Hurricane Katrina, its lack of transparency. But he never returned to the question of patriotism. He never said, “But hey, look, we’re Americans. This is the greatest country on earth. We’ll rise to the occasion.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Joe Klein refers to the “implicit patriotism of the Obama candidacy” but says, “to convince those who doubt him, Obama has to make the implicit explicit. He will have to show that he can be as corny as he is cool.”

Beyond, “we’re Americans – this is the greatest country on earth,” what other kinds of “explicit patriotism” does Klein have in mind? A flag lapel button? Stories about reciting the pledge of allegiance each morning with his wife and children? What kind of corny show of patriotism does Klein think would hit the mark and play best in the American heartland?

There’s little doubt that patriotism will at the very least figure as an insidious undercurrent in the general election and it’s important that the Obama campaign doesn’t fall into the position of being on the defense. But the way to do that is not to kowtow to those who push the conventional wisdom which says that political success in America requires a massive serving of red, white, and blue.

Patriotism should not be confused with its emblems. Too often these have been turned into the tools of a nationalism that paradoxically divides rather than unites the people.

When the flag wavers turn to the flag weary and say, “prove to us that you are American enough,” the implication is that even those who pass the test will remain less American than those requiring the test. The me-too patriot has capitulated to those who say: “It is we, not you, who understand what it means to be a real American.”

It’s not so much that Obama has a patriotism problem as much as that his opponents will, as he has said, use patriotism as a bludgeon. But what Obama has wisely done and I hope will continue to do is to insist that neither his critics nor commentators such as Joe Klein, be conferred with the privilege of framing each issue.

For four years Obama has been saying, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” What could be more patriotic than a heartfelt embracing of the whole nation?

America belongs to the American people. So when any particular group asserts a claim that they above others know what it means to be “real Americans”, they are in effect attempting to disavow the national identity of other citizens. What could be less patriotic than to abandon fellow Americans?

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6 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: America’s patriotism problem

  1. tommy tompkins

    Hey Paul,
    While I’m not convinced that Obama or anyone else is going to keep this country from a date with doom (to understate the matter), i certainly agree with your insights: “There’s little doubt that patriotism will at the very least figure as an insidious undercurrent in the general election.” Keep ’em coming, WIC is a great resource…

  2. carol Elkins

    Just last night I was thinking about the same thing. He will have to make the same kind of speech about patriotism that he made about race. I expect that he will wait to do this until John McCain is his only opponent.
    One by one he will have to address our dysfunctional myths. That is his story.
    But, he is a master story-teller, for whom the issue of timing is paramount.

  3. Phil Sheehan

    A nice take on patriotism, Paul.

    Klein is onto something, but as frequently happens, he’s only half-way onto it. The “it” is Patriotism as a Measure of the Man.

    Of course there are people who will challenge Obama on it. The other half of that insight is this: Those overwhelmingly are people who will not be satisfied no matter what Obama says, or, if they are satisfied, still will not vote for him.

    Identifying the True Patriot (or the Real Patriotism) is roughly akin to identifying the True Religion. The existence of diverse claimants persuades me that
    a/ many of the claims are sincere and defensible, and
    b/ none of them is founded on Absolute and Incontrovertible Truth.

    One of my sons created a bumper sticker I still fancy. It’s a picture of jazz great Django Reinhardt, with the slogan, Less Jingo, More Django.

  4. MonsieurGonzo

    Americans embrace the trinkets of ‘patriotism’ because they have been provided no other means of actively participating in The War = cause célèbre save as passive consumers. When they see leaders, public figures, etc., NOT participating in the trivial displays and rituals of nationalism, most Americans feel that they, themselves are being trivialized by ‘arrogant’ intellectuals, whom they almost always feel, anyway ~ look down on them.

    Mr. Obama may be intellectually correct by refusing to conform to the infantilizing notions of nationalism, but by not calling for any meaningful, alternative action(s) that the population CAN embrace, he leaves a void ~ much as Mr. Bush did when he failed to give The People any rôle after 9/11 : other than ‘to enable and obey’ by faith beyond reason the idea of Unitary Executive.

    For example, Mr. Obama could re-direct one of the trinkets, the Yellow RIbbon, and “ask all Americans who truly ‘Support The Troops’, rather than wear or display this emblem: to tie this Yellow Ribbon around the hoses of their petrol station pumps.”

  5. carol Elkins

    I see in this morning’s news that instead of making a patriotism speech, Obama is putting it in the mix of his stump speech. Also polls show that voters are not concerned about his patriotism.

    Reason for optimism, although those of us who are Woodward fans will not be able to sleep until he is the nominee. Then we’ll have to start worrying again!

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