Is Obama Unpatriotic for Not Wearing the Flag on his Lapel?

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Mr. Shor is a Professor in the History Department at Wayne State University where he teaches courses on 20th century US social/cultural history.

The right-wing assault on Senator Barack Obama’s refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin and his supposed failure to salute the flag is an all-too-predictable manifestation of Republican political posturing. In a related incident, CNN posted an outrageously tendentious poll on its website asking whether Obama had the “proper patriotism” to be President. Although CNN may have crossed the boundaries of political partisanship, the identification of the flag and patriotism is deeply embedded in a century of political and popular consciousness.

At the end of the 19th century, the flag became an obvious symbol for a nationalism seeking to invent a tradition to transcend regional, ethnic, and class differences. John Phillip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever provided a popular martial melody for marching off to the Spanish-American War. During that war the flag became an emblem of US imperial missions as it was hoisted above the harbors of Havana and Manila.

Throughout the early 20th century class conflict, hardly suppressed by the “new nationalism,” flared up in factories, mines, and mills. When the militants of the Industrial Workers of the World mounted a free speech fight in San Diego in 1912, they were met by vigilantes who kidnapped them and made them run a gauntlet where the end point was a forced ritual of kissing the flag. On the other hand, immigrant workers often displayed the flag during their strikes as defensive testimony to their loyalty to a more inclusive nation.

During WWII and the Cold War the flag became an obvious site of rallying the nation against a common enemy. As brilliantly depicted in the Clint Eastwood film, Flags of Our Fathers, the Iwo Jima flag-raising was a deliberate tool to foster continuing sacrifice from a war-weary population. As part of the anti-communist crusade of the Cold War the Pledge of Allegiance (an anthem originally written by the nephew of socialist Edward Bellamy) added “under God” as a way of reinforcing the flag’s role as the critical symbol of an American civil religion. (That religious reference remains a point of legal contention.)

US civil religion underwent traumatic contestations during the Vietnam War when some youthful protestors burned the flag in their outraged opposition to the war. One of the more outrageous protestors, Abbie Hoffman, turned the media obsession with the desecration of the flag into a brilliant piece of political theatre when he showed up to testify before Congress wearing an American flag. When Hoffman was stopped and stripped of the flag shirt, his back revealed a painted Viet Cong emblem. Hoffman was eventually prosecuted and convicted for desecration of the flag under a 1968 federal law.

As a consequence of the attacks on the flag throughout the Vietnam War Era and the continuing use of the flag by opposing sides to demonstrate their politics, the courts were called upon to determine whether those who defiled the flag in their disdain for the establishment were covered by the First Amendment. In a 1989 landmark US Supreme Court decision, a narrow 5-4 majority ruled that desecrating the flag was protected by the free speech provision of the First Amendment.

Nonetheless, Republican efforts to use the flag to pontificate about patriotism continued under Reagan and Bush Senior and Junior. During Reagan’s Presidency, the flag proliferated in public events whenever and wherever Reagan was present as a reminder that if it was “morning in America” everybody ought to salute the increasing number of flags displayed. During the election of 1988, George H. W. Bush attacked Michael Dukakis for his concurrence in a court ruling that exempted some religious dissenters, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, from saluting the flag. As a way to demonstrate his own macho patriotism, Dukakis made the tactical error of riding around in a tank, only to see the film incorporated into an ad ridiculing the diminutive governor. During George W’s presidency, Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment to ban burning or desecrating the flag in any way (unless, of course, it could be used for commercial profit).

Now, facing the election of 2008, with John McCain and the Republicans posturing as the authentic patriots, the likely Democratic nominee for President, Barack Obama, has become the target of those who would use the flag as a cover for their discredited policies. Obama, on the other hand, in a deft maneuver of political jujitsu has turned the issue of patriotism against those policies. “If anyone’s patriotism should be considered suspect, it is those who want to send Americans off to die in a worthless and destructive war and those who want to eviscerate our basic political rules by torturing, detaining people with no rights, and spying on American citizens with no warrants.”

Whose message will resonate most effectively with the majority of citizens is yet to be determined. What is clear, however, is that the flag, patriotism, and political posturing still occupy much of the contested ground in what passes for political culture, especially in this up-coming election.

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    Justin lloyd Prince - 6/16/2008

    I give great warning to those who believe that a man that has showed more hidden skeletons in his closet in the past few months then JFK's past 40 some years, is worthy of the title Commander and Chief. I look at the polls and see the similarities all too well. Everyone that supports this anti-christ is either poor and educated or (the opposite) highly educated and liberal. Not to mention, Obama spends his time dwelling on the youth who haven't found the sense of American worth in this chaotic world we call the USA. Any candidate that deems to associate with terrorist and unpatriotic pastors is not a candidate for me. It is sad to think that no knowledge reform idea has come from Obama on what to do about our conservation of natural resources. In plain english, I don't think he gives a crap about anything other then ending the war in Iraq. Sure, that a big ideal for me to end the war in Iraq, but what about the other issues that Obama has eluded along with professing is undying hatred for Americanism. Mark my words, the man will win the Presidency riding the back of Rasicm and trickery. We all will pay dearily for our ignorance.

    Rebecca Joy Gold Johnson - 3/17/2008

    The Flag of the United States of America deserves respect. In times of war it has been used by both Democrats and Republicans alike to unite the Nation behind the cause and troops. It serves not only as the symbol of your nation but it also represents the United States Veterans. Yes, at times in history Americans have used the Flag to protest against government policies. They choose to use the Flag because even they understand that it was the symbol of the United States and represented the Freedoms which American citizens enjoy daily. I do not think that Obama is unpatriotic for not wearing a Flag on his Lapel; however, I do consider him unpatriotic for his complete lack of respect for the Flag of the United States. During his Presidential campaign, Obama has consistently remained seated and not covered his heart while the United States Flag is presented. That is UNPATRIOTIC.

    Thomas R. Cox - 3/3/2008

    Back in the 1950s when there still was a "liberal" wing in the Republican party (remember Rockefeller, Scranton, Hatfield, and even Wayne Morse?), the Ripon Society was created to give it voice. For their symbol, the founders chose a profile of Lincoln because, as one of their leaders put it, they didn't want all the symbols of patriotism claimed by the right wingers. But the flag has become pretty much the property of the right. When you see a giant flag flying in the front yard of a private dwelling, you can be quite certain of the politics of the resident. To refuse to buy into this posturing, as Obama has, is not to say you are unpatriotic--or even lukewarm in your devotion to America--but simply to refuse to lend strength to the self-righteous moralizing of conservatives. Still, I think a better approach might be that of the old Ripon Society--grab onto an obvious symbol of patriotism, wrap yourself in it, and make a case for true patriotism being that which brings out the best in America, not its narrow, nativist, chauvinistic side.