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The New York Sun


Showing the Flag

May 29, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Wearing pins have never been much my thing. However, after September 11, 2001, I did put an American flag sticker on my car windshield. After a bibulous festivity, a pacifist friend took it upon herself to rip off the flag.

There was an element of humor in it, and a dash of the theatrical — yet it was sincere. I tried to pull her away, and realized that I could only have done so via what would have become some kind of scuffle. Off went my sticker.

Her idea was that in these times, showing the flag risked stoking the jingoistic passions of the less sophisticated, and that as an academic I was responsible for refraining from doing so. Patriotism in California’s Bay Area in the spring of 2002, for her, was to be filtered through an “awareness” that on some level, Osama Bin Laden had a point because America has not always been a sterling citizen of the world.

She was hardly unique. In campus culture these days, red-blooded patriotism is considered troglodytic. Few, asked if they are patriots, would say no. But showing the flag? Dear, dear — afraid not.

I take the liberty of assuming that this perspective had at least something to do with Barack Obama’s letting the American flag pin go last fall. One shows “true” patriotism by being “true to our values and ideals” as Mr. Obama has said. Okay — but why can’t you do the aforesaid while also wearing the pin?

Clearly, Mr. Obama felt that there was something wrong with the specific act of wearing the pin. Given his history and demographic, it is reasonable to suppose that he would converse comfortably with someone like my old friend. Clearly, he has a bone to pick with America.

Yet this is not grounds for assailing him as “hating America.”

It’s no surprise that he recoils at what has happened in Iraq — he has voted accordingly. And we can all agree that these days, the war in Iraq is, in the eyes of the world, much of what America is. But is this all Barack Obama is, in terms of how he views America? I think of a conservative forum on patriotism I was a panelist at last year.

I said that these days, for America’s thinking class, patriotism is on the ropes — exactly the reluctant, bitter, genuflective sentiment that leads an American citizen to rip a stars-and-stripes sticker off of a windshield.

I mentioned that whereas in the past, a rose variety was named “American Beauty,“ that this would be unlikely today in an era when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes name their child Suri.

Today, an American demonstrates higher awareness by saluting other cultures, not ours. To the enlightened American, America is most often an address, not an identity.

Nobody liked that at the forum. The consensus was that a positive orientation toward being American is alive and well. The elements of that patriotism were purported to be 1) a commitment to making America better, 2) thinking of America as a land of opportunity, and 3) believing in God.

And recall: this was a conservative event. Well, how does Senator Obama fare according to that score card? No problem as to whether he wants to make America better. Argue with his proposals, but their ameliorative intent is evident.

As to America as the land of opportunity, recall that speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004 when he resonantly praised our nation for giving such opportunity to “the skinny kid with the funny name.“ Whatever your problems with the man, do you really think this gratitude was a pose?

And on God, enough said. Anyone who thinks Mr. Obama reads the Koran before bed is, at this point, either uninformed or willfully unreceptive. His membership, until recently, in a church headed by a certain someone conclusively demonstrates that Mr. Obama believes in God. He is, in fact, the most visibly Christian of the three leading contenders for the Big Prize.

Okay, his putting the pin back on of late is symbolic. Most likely he’d rather not, in his heart of hearts. Big surprise — Harvard and Hyde Park are part of his visceral sociopolitical spirit.

But from what I see, Barack Obama is spot-on patriotic in precisely the ways that my fellow panelists at that event viewed as the heart of being a true American in our times.

So let’s get beyond going ballistic whenever Mr. Obama or his wife reveal that their Ivy League backgrounds have coaxed them away from the unalloyed patriotism of Theodore Roosevelt and George M. Cohan. They will, wittingly or not, display their college town. “Yes, but ... ” rendition of patriotism again and again.

Yet that brand of patriotism in Mr. Obama comprises all of the fundamental commitments that my co-panelists thought of as bedrocks of the true American spirit.

Original Source:



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