As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

We're Talking About Lapel Pins?

The firestorm of controversy over Barack Obama's lapel pin, or lack thereof, kind of proves Obama's entire point.

“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.”

Good on him. This bumper-sticker patriotism is worse than annoying. It's debilitating. The idea is that you can advocate the most un-American policies imaginable, including secret detentions, torture, pre-emptive war, anything, but if you're wearing a flag on your suit, you're a patriot. You can support policies that deny troops the benefits they deserve, deny them the armor on the battlefield they need, but if you put a "support the troops" magnet on your car, you support the troops.

Life doesn't work that way. Patriotism takes work. It's not a slogan. It means pushing for your country to do the right thing. It means actually working to promote your values and ensuring that they are displayed on the national stage. It means accepting negative speech, it means fighting against unreasonable searches and seizures, it means defending the Constitutional rights of even the most downtrodden. Barack Obama is basically saying to the country, "Grow up. Democracy isn't as easy as wearing a sticker. Do something." Thank you.

Of course, it also goes without saying that the people most concerned with Barack Obama's lapel pin are rank hypocrites.

UPDATE: Paul Waldman:

This is a pretty clear conservative/progressive split. Conservatives are huge fans of symbolic patriotism -- flag lapel pins, flags on cars, full-throated singing of "God Bless the U.S.A." (aka "Proud to Be an American"), and so on -- public displays, in which one demonstrates to other people that one loves America.

Progressives, on the other hand, tend to favor substantive patriotism, which involves doing things to make one's country better. After all, if progressives really hated America, why would they even want to change it in ways that would make it conform more with their values? That would mean, from their perspective, making it better, something you wouldn't do if you just hated the country. I hate the Yankees, so if I figured out the perfect combination of trades that would lead to them winning the next five World Series, I'd be sure not to tell them.

This is the difference between thinking that patriotism means talking about how super-awesome America is, and that patriotism means doing things to make America great. There's nothing wrong with the former, if that's what moves you (and of course, there's nothing wrong with doing both simultaneously). But in practice, symbolic patriotism is all too often offered as a substitute for action. To take just one example, the conservative avers that we have "the best health care system in the world," even though that's plainly not true, and therefore we don't need to change it, while the progressive attempts to improve the health care system until it actually is the best in the world.

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