Saturday, July 5, 2008

What's Up With The Flag Pins?

I remember when I first got a flag pin. A friend of mine in high school had been making them after 9/11; she did a really good job. They were safety pins filled with beads attached to a larger safety pin, and looked like the American flag. It jangled, and was pretty nifty. I wore it on my purse. It remains my one and only foray into the flag pin world.

I think of myself as a fairly patriotic person. I show my patriotism in fairly conventional ways; I criticize the government frequently and wear red, white, and blue on the appropriate holidays. My house displays an American flag in those times when it is not extolling the virtues of the University of Connecticut's Women's Basketball team or flying our "fun" flags like our kite flag. I'm proud of America's accomplishments, and I do think this is the greatest country in the world. I also think we have a lot of work to do to truly deserve that title. My feelings about America being the best country is analogous to the Churchill quote "democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried from time to time".

One of the things we have to work on is our attention to the flag pins. Flag pins, indeed just flying American flags, are crappy measures of patriotism. They are crappy measures of patriotism because it takes so little effort to hoist a flag or pin something to an item of clothing. They are crappy measures of patriotism because they are shorthand for "I am a good American citizen", and somehow seem to absolve that good American citizen from fulfilling their other patriotic duties, like voting or protesting against the violations the government has begun to make against their basic civil liberties. America, in the words of Aaron Sorkin (via the movie "The American President"), "is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, and who's standing center stage advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest".

That is the measure of patriotism. So it profoundly disturbs me that forty-one percent of respondents to a recent CNN poll said a U.S. presidential candidate should always wear a flag pin. It also makes my blood boil that the question posed was "How often should a U.S. presidential candidate wear a flag pin?" when the real questions should be "Should a U.S. presidential candidate have to wear a flag pin?" and "What does a flag pin say about a U.S. presidential candidate's level of patriotism?"

Barack Obama has been hit hard over his "flip flopping" about wearing, or not wearing, a flag pin. The kerfuffle originally popped up in October when he'd been tagged as not wearing the pin and questioned about it. Frankly, the idea that someone who had been thinking about voting for a candidate would change their mind because they didn't make Old Glory part of his (or her) every day fashion makes me retch. The fact is, the flag pin is a shallow symbol. It is the Toby Keith of symbols. It requires no action, no deeper thought. A terrorist could just as easily wear one as a true patriot. And it represents something I have written about previously: the inclination for Americans and the American media to focus on the trivial and mundane at the expense of the extraordinary and important.

The challenge for Americans this political season, and every one hereafter, is to reject things like flag pins as the rubric. Wear them, fly them, proudly display the bumper stickers, and then do something real. Read; vote; write a letter; talk to family and friends about the issues. And for the love of all things holy, measure a candidate's patriotism by what really matters and not his adherence to the lowest common denominators of American symbolism.

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