It seems like only a short time since the end of 2001 when any questioning of the profound wisdom and leadership of Bush Administration policy would inevitably return a devastating salvo of insults about one's lack of patriotism. The criticism would come not just from the extreme right-wing but from the media, and in some cases even from Democratic leaders who really should have known better. It was this pseudo-patriotic hysteria, more than any misrepresentation about WMD’s that led so many Democrats to sign-on to the Iraq invasion and occupation.
We are still suffering the after-effects of a sad episode reminiscent of the McCarthy era when a careless comment could brand one as a communist sympathizer. Even today one has to be a bit careful about showing any concern for the harsh treatment that is too often heaped on Muslims or even Hispanic immigrants. Could a sympathetic comment put you in danger of being tagged as a terrorist? Could it land me on a no-fly list? Unfortunately, the fear-mongering years of the Bush Administration seem to retain a dampening effect on the exercise of free speech.
The right-wing deserves quite a lot of credit. They have always shown surprising skill at inventing symbols and clever words to put down their opposition. Somehow, despite their efforts to dismantle our carefully crafted form of government, undermine the commons and greedily transfer the public wealth into their own pockets, they have been able to assume the mantle of patriotism and confuse right-wing partisanship with the traditional symbols of patriotism. Somehow they have been able to so finely target these symbols that it was quite acceptable to heap great scorn on Clinton, even during a war, but a terrible unpatriotic offense, just a couple years later, to even gently criticize Dubyah. How could they have managed this?
Support the troops! That symbol, often in the form of a magnetic sign on the back of a gas-guzzler, can be seen in any parking lot. Does it mean just what it literally says or is there a hidden meaning within that simple sign?
There are people who truly support the troops by volunteering their time and money to aid returning veterans and by writing letters to urge congressmen to properly supply troops in the field and to improve care given to wounded veterans. But these people do not openly advertise their support for the troops. The magnetic sign is missing from the back of their cars because they view these magnetic signs as associating themselves with the loony right-wing. Ironically the magnetic sign seems to imply Cut Taxes (and veteran’s benefits) more strongly than it announces the literal message that the troops should truly be supported. These magnetic signs are really symbols (made in China) that subtly claim I am a (right-wing) patriot.
Liberals seem to be put into a peculiar quandary with regard to discussions of patriotism. A reason for this is that, as much as the right-wing wants to treat patriotism as a simple notion, patriotism is, at least to liberals, not really such a simple concept. When someone proclaims a love of country are they saying it is the actual land, mountains and water they love (if so they should want to preserve and protect these things), or perhaps it is the people (in all their diversity), or perhaps its traditions (in this case of democracy, fair treatment and opportunity for all). Is the person who stands by his country, right or wrong, more of a patriot than one who strives to guide his country in the right direction? Does patriotism imply a distancing from people of other nationalities? Or is patriotism only blind obedience to the head of state? Maybe it is simply a matter of wearing a lapel pin.
Whatever it may be that conservatives mean by the word patriotism, it seems unlikely that liberals mean the same thing by it. Even within these broad groups there is probably a great deal of variation in what people mean by this word. By their own definitions, both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, but if forced to adopt the other’s definition it seems quite possible that neither would be patriotic.
Ostensibly a symbol of patriotism, the flag lapel pin has also come to be a surreptitious symbol of the right-wing. With the enthusiastic support of the corporate media, the right-wing has capitalized on this dual meaning to put Barack Obama in an uncomfortable situation. Of course Obama has failed to wear this lapel pin! Without ever being told, we all know that this pin subtly says, Look at me, I am a right-winger and very proud of it! But still, the literal meaning of the pin is closer to the statement, I am Proud to be American. Does anyone really doubt that Obama is comfortable in his patriotism? For one, I have no doubt of his patriotism, though I also have little doubt that he perceives patriotism differently than his right-wing critics.
Perhaps someone can condense this array of thoughts into a simple sound-bite or a simple symbol. Some have suggested the flag lapel pin be worn upside-down to symbolize the distress the nation is under. I can imagine the press having a field-day with this, however. Can’t you just hear the media pointing out how liberals don’t know which way is up?
I prefer another alternative, and that is to take these symbols back and start to use them as our own. Let us urge Obama to wear a flag lapel pin and let us all support him by wearing these pins everywhere we go. The right-wing should not be allowed to continue to own our flag, and if it is liberals who wear these pins it may be that conservatives will start feeling uncomfortable about displaying them.
As for the magnetic sign, why not have a similar one that says, Support Returning Veterans! Ideally (assuming this country still retains the manufacturing technology), these should come from a union shop and have a tiny Made in U.S.A. label proudly displayed on them. The same factory should also manufacture our flag lapel pins. These pins should be a bit different so we can chide conservatives for refusing to buy American.
The left needs to mount an agressive campaign to pass a new GI-bill. The bill should provide generous education support as well as good medical care and preference for government jobs to returning veterans. The Iraq war has lasted longer than the U.S. involvement in WWII and its returning veterans deserve the same kind of treatment that WWII veterans received. The left should insist the Democratic Congress pass such a bill primarily because it is fair but also because it will help insulate the left from the right-wing propaganda that is sure to come after the war ends. We can be sure that the right-wing propaganda mill is anxious to repeat their claim that liberals are spitting on returning veterans (a myth of right-wing propaganda widely promoted after Viet Nam). Let's make it clear that it is the right that is spitting on returning veterans. Ideally, the new GI-bill should be passed in time for Bush to veto it.
The new GI-bill will be good politics, but it will be very good for the economy and will make good on some of the false promises that recruiters made to entice them into the military. It will help the returning veteran become a productive citizen and it will put money into the hands of people who will spend it in our own economy. The record is quite good on this; it is generally thought that the GI-bill of the late 1940’s more than paid for itself in an improved economy.