David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Obama and the Flag: What's Not in a Symbol

If you want to convince me that Barack Obama isn't sufficiently loyal to his country, you'll have to do better than to tell me he doesn't wear an American flag on his lapel.

Symbols are useful, important, and sometimes very powerful. They are everywhere. I do not object to this. That would be like objecting to gravity or the sunrise or ear lobes.

I object to symbols with nothing real behind them -- in which case, technically, they may not be symbols at all -- and to the abuse of symbols. And I am sometimes irritated when people invent new symbols, because I think a lot of people embrace a symbol as a conscience-salving substitute for doing something useful for their cause.

All else being equal, I don't mind that people wear . . .

  • pink ribbons to raise awareness of breast cancer (or its victims);
  • yellow ribbons to remember soldiers serving abroad;
  • red ribbons for HIV/AIDS awareness;
  • white ribbons to oppose violence against women;
  • blue ribbons in opposition to child abuse or tobacco-smoking;
  • green ribbons to advocate environmental justice;
  • purple ribbons to raise awareness of lupus, fibromyalgia, autism, eating disorders, pancreatic cancer, and Pagan Pride Day;
  • orange ribbons for (or against) deep-vein thrombosis, leukemia, motorcycle safety, nonviolence, anti-racism, and the freedom to own guns;
  • black ribbons to oppose torture or terrorism; or -- my personal favorite --
  • brown ribbons to protest the proliferation of symbolic ribbons.

(Please note that no Wikipedia articles were harmed in the making of this partial list, but I did consult several.)

I find all of this inoffensive, right up to the point where people jettison reason, civility, and common sense, as some seem eager to do. There is a certain foolish, perhaps irredeemably shallow worldview which turns all of this on its head, sometimes sincerely, sometimes cynically. In this world view, if you don't wear the symbol, nutty zealots assume that you favor its opposite. If I don't wear a pink ribbon, they think I am rooting for breast cancer. If I don't wear a red ribbon, I must want the HIVS/AIDS epidemic to increase. If I don't wear a green ribbon, I must be dumping thousands of gallons of raw sewage into Utah Lake every night, or sneaking into senior citizens' yards under cover of darkness to spray all their flora with Roundup.

The fact of the matter is, we cannot safely judge the substance on the basis of the symbol. Symbols are too easy. Traitors and spies can recite the Pledge of Allegiance with outward devotion. Unbelievers with an agenda may say amen and shout hallelujah. Adulterers sometimes wear their wedding rings. And prominent environmentalists travel in private jets and SUVs and live in enormous houses. A careful look beyond the symbol often reveals the symbol to be meaningless or deceptive.

The conventional media (BMA) and the blogosphere are all abuzz right now with the scandalous intelligence that Senator Barack Obama has been seen not wearing an American flag pin. And some folks say a certain picture of him was taken while he was not holding his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance at some event. Maybe the former is minutely purer than the latter, since the US Code actually says we're supposed to do that second thing. But even if the photos and stories are genuine, I find nothing particularly intelligent or scandalous in this morsel of scandalous intelligence.

Even if I trusted the art of photography in the hands of political partisans, I would still have these questions about the photograph of Senator Obama not saluting the flag: How did the photographer snap the photograph while he or she -- I mean the photographer -- was standing at attention, with the left arm down at the side and the right hand over the heart, properly saluting the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance? How did the photographer even notice what Senator Obama was doing just then, when the same section of the US Code says everyone is to be facing the flag at that moment?

As to the pin, if all we need to measure a candidate's patriotism is to see whether he wears a flag pin on his lapel, we are too stupid and shallow to be free.

It's not that Senator Obama didn't invite this abuse. He is running against a Clinton, after all. A certain near-toxic level of baloney is to be expected. But if you want me to think a man disloyal to his country, tell me how he has damaged my freedom to build his own political power. Tell me how he has overseen the sale of sensitive military technology in exchange for campaign contributions from one of our enemies. Tell me how he insists on demoralizing our troops and aiding the enemy by publicly and repeatedly calling victory defeat. Don't insult me with this bilge about what pin he wears or doesn't wear, or whether at some inadequately documented moment he was photographed not properly saluting my nation's flag.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I note that I am only a Barack Obama supporter in the very limited sense that (a) I find him to be a gifted speaker, and (b) I want to see Mrs. Clinton out of the race as soon as possible, before she and the prospective First Triangulator get anywhere near the White House, FBI files, or interns again. I don't so much mind the bread, sometimes, but I can do without four to eight years of even bigger Clinton circuses. When she's gone, we can worry about who is left.]

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