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Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential candidate frontrunner Barack Obama has gotten himself in trouble with America’s conservative voting block. Mr. Obama has chosen not to exhibit his patriotism with an American flag lapel pin, bringing down the wrath of those who would send young Americans to die in an imperial war while they themselves proudly fly the flag in the rear window of their SUVs. To add insult to this grievous injury, a photo has been discovered of Mr. Obama with his hand not placed on his heart during the singing of the National Anthem.
Might it not be possible to look at this in a rational light? Could thinking citizens perhaps put aside for a moment the notion that an elected official who does not wear a U.S. flag lapel pin is really a terrorist in disguise, ready to destroy the very foundations on which modern society is built? Could such an official somehow neglect to place his hand appropriately during the singing of the anthem and still not be courting a one-way trip to Guantanamo?
Mr. Obama explained his decision to stop wearing the lapel pin. Said he: "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."
One with a short memory may not recall other badges of patriotism trotted out by the government prior to the obscene invasion of Iraq. Perhaps one’s favorite restaurant stopped serving French fries and substituted instead ‘Freedom Fries.’ Ah, true patriotism! The entire idea is embarrassing to any thinking U.S. citizen.
Conservatives around the country are gleeful at Mr. Obama’s thoughtful comments and actions, comparing him, they say to ‘war hero’ Republican Senator John McCain, the expected Republican nominee for president. The juxtaposition of ‘war hero’ McCain and ‘anti-war’ Obama, they gloat, will deliver the presidency to Mr. McCain.
It is amazing how words can become so twisted that thinking people believe them without thought. Mr. McCain is hailed as a war hero, mainly because he spent five years as a prisoner of war in one of the U.S.’s earlier imperial atrocities, the Vietnam War. But one might more realistically see Mr. McCain as a war victim than a war hero. No one questions Mr. McCain’s suffering during that unspeakable time; no thinking person denigrates the sacrifices he was forced to make for the U.S. Yet one must look at ‘anti-war’ Mr. Obama as the man more likely to prevent such suffering in the future.
Mr. Obama’s wife has fueled the Republican fire with a recent comment she made. Michelle Obama said the following in Wisconsin: "People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."
Mrs. Obama, like her husband, chose to make a thoughtful statement. One might understand that a citizenry looking for real change (whether or not her husband is capable of delivering it is another matter altogether) would give the candidate’s wife a sense of pride beyond what she had experienced during a lifetime of older white males running the show.
Mr. McCain’s wife (the current one) did not hesitate to express her pride in the country in response to Mrs. Obama. An heiress who met Mr. McCain while he was still married to his first wife, she said this: "I am proud of my country. I don’t know if you heard those words earlier. I am very proud of my country."
It might be worth recognizing that Mrs. McCain has always known the privileges and benefits that the U.S. grants to the children of wealthy white families. She has been able to fund her husband’s various campaigns, and dabble in ‘good works’ with the family fortune.
In contrast, Mrs. Obama grew up in more modest circumstances, eventually earned a degree in law and worked for a Chicago law firm before entering public service in 1991. Without the backing of a vast family fortune she became the founding executive director of ‘Public Allies Chicago,’ an organization that assists young adults in preparing for careers in public service.
Like Mr. McCain’s service to the U.S., no one denigrates Mrs. McCain’s work in bringing medical assistance to war-torn or disaster-stricken areas of the world, one of her pet projects. But one without the financial resources that are available to Mrs. McCain might feel that doing so is made somewhat easier when there is no need to research potential organizations for grants, make countless cold-calls and persist when there appears to be little hope. When Daddy is rich, the telephone calls needed to solicit monies are probably not too time-consuming or onerous.
Perhaps it is easier to be proud of one’s country when one does not see suffering or experience prejudice. Perhaps it is a little more challenging when one’s best efforts to accomplish good are blocked by government bureaucracy.
And so the patriotism battle, never far from the public eye, once more comes front and center. On the one hand is the elderly Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war who has stated that U.S. involvement in Iraq lasting one hundred years would be fine with him. (If 1,000,000 Iraqis have died in less than 6 years of war, that nation will be without a single living human being long before Mr. McCain’s hundred years have passed). On the other is Mr. Obama, young enough to be the son of Mr. McCain, but certainly the wrong color, who would like to see U.S. involvement in Iraq end sooner rather than later. On the one hand, the flag pin on the lapel; on the other, a thoughtful reason for not wearing one.
Mr. McCain financed his early successful campaigns by opening his wife’s abundant purse; Mr. Obama has had to finance his campaigns through contributions. In a democracy one expects that the voice of the people will be heard. That might indicate that those individual citizens contributing small amounts of their hard-earned money to a political campaign believe that that candidate will, as an elected official, act in their best interests.
Similarly, when large corporations pour money into a political campaign, usually that of a Republican candidate, their CEOs expect that those candidates, as elected officials, will act in their best interests. This is seldom congruent with the best interests of poor and working class people. This, of course, is of no concern to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
But such mundane issues aside, the real question appears to be who is more patriotic. Is it Mr. McCain, who supports the continued occupation of Iraq, but does not seem to care much about the continued suffering in New Orleans, or Mr. Obama, who has a preference for spending money to assist U.S. citizens rather than on killing the people of Iraq? Is it the candidate who proudly displays a tiny U.S. flag on the lapel of his coat, or the one who has chosen not to, stating clearly that he would rather show his patriotism with words and actions, than with empty symbols? Is it the white one or the black one?
If this is the level that the presidential campaign will be reduced to, the U.S. voter should be insulted that the candidates consider them so lacking in intelligence. But perhaps recognizing that those voters kept Mr. Bush in office in 2004 has given rise to that belief. If the conservative wing of the Republican Party, hardly enthused about Mr. McCain to begin with, honestly feels that the election should be decided on a lapel pin, their own credibility should be non-existent. That it isn’t is a shocking indictment of the U.S. voter.
So one waits with bated breath to see just where this farce proceeds from here. Will the horrors of Guantanamo, the carnage in Iraq, 47,000,000 Americans with no health care, and skyrocketing home foreclosures all go by the wayside, so the major party candidates
can argue about their patriotism? Is this the lofty level of discourse to which the U.S. voter is to be subjected for the next eight months?
At this point the voters are still selecting the Democratic candidate in an historic race between an African-American man and a white woman. On the Republican side it is business as usual, with a rich, elderly, white, war-mongering male now the expected nominee. With each day the issues blur, as news of continued carnage in Iraq, record numbers of home foreclosures, and recession at home fade from the rhetoric as the flag of patriotism is waved about, accompanied by stentorian voices proclaiming their love of country above all else.
A casual onlooker has reason for concern: the U.S. voter has proven a certain vulnerability to these shallow, meaningless gestures, and often amplifies them to a degree of value far beyond any real importance. Should this happen in 2008, the results for the U.S. and the world will be catastrophic.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘