Political Culture: Patriotism and the Mind-Body Problem

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Flag Lapel PinTo no one’s surprise, Republicans this week trotted out what promises to be one of their primary lines of attack against Barack Obama in the fall, should he win the nomination: the notion that he has a patriotism problem.

The Associated Press inexplicably gave largely unfiltered voice to conservative wack-job Roger Stone’s accusation that because Obama refuses to wear an American flag pin on his lapel; because he was photographed singing the National Anthem without his hand over his heart; and because his wife may not have swelled perpetually with pride through the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush years, that he’s possibly a member of the Fifth Column who’s somehow out to get America rather than lead it.

To his enormous credit, Obama quickly shot back. He said, “When we start getting into those definitions of patriotism … I will come right after [Republicans who] presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor that they needed, or [sent] troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans benefits that these troops need when they come home, or [are] undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary.

“That is a debate that I am very happy to have,” Obama added. “We’ll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”

Barack ObamaObama engaged the patriotism debate in his usual straightforward, cool-as-a-cucumber style — so very different from all the Democrats who have tiptoed around this subject for so many years, largely ceding the issue to the Republicans. His point — that the symbols of patriotism so frequently abducted and exploited by conservatives are meaningless without some fealty to the ideas upon which our country was founded, and without some loyalty to and support for the very people we send into battle to (supposedly) defend those ideas — was one that would have helped John Kerry lash back at the cowardly swift-boat fuckheads of 2004, and that might have shamed the GOP out of rolling over for the Bush/Cheney regime of human rights violations.

As I read Obama’s words, I was reminded of a lecture I heard back in the early 1990s from a graduate-school professor of mine named Carolyn Marvin, who about 10 years ago co-authored a book entitled Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. The book discusses the status of the flag as the center of our nation’s “civil religion,” and identifies ways in which our society — even more than most others through history — fetishizes the flag as a force for cohesion, for militarism, for heroism, and for conformity of thought and opinion.

The part of her analysis that Dr. Marvin shared during that lecture relates to the flag’s place in our nation’s peculiar mind-body problem.

Stay with me here.

Leaving aside the philosophical underpinnings of the “mind-body problem” — if you’re interested, you can find cogent discussions of it here and here — the general idea is that there is a commonly perceived dichotomy between the seemingly ephemeral activities of the mind, as it generates thought, collects knowledge, summons emotion and organizes beliefs, and the physical activities of the body as it walks, talks, eats, sleeps, burps, farts and poops. (I’m not sure Descartes would have put it quite that way, but whatever.)

Dr. Marvin argued that our nation’s creation story, both in its facts and its myths, endowed our society with its own mind-body problem. On the one hand, we revere the documents that represent the ideas — the “mind” — upon which our nation was founded: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers. We locate the roots of our singular “American experience” in the concepts of freedom and the little-r republican form of government; and we justifiably celebrate as our greatest achievements the ones that brought us (and the world) closer to the little-d democratic ideal: the end of slavery, the belated recognition of the equal rights of women and minorities, the defeats of Nazism and Communism.

On the other hand, we describe the period between roughly 1770 and 1800 as the “birth” of the nation, we identify George Washington as the “father” of our country, and we hail a bunch of other guys as our “founding fathers.” And then there are these iconic images:

Betsy Ross and George Washington

Betsy RossIn both these paintings, the American flag seems to emerge fully formed from … well, from below Betsy Ross’ waist. There is no evidence to document that George Washington himself ever showed up at Ross’ home to see how the flag was coming along, but the image above brings together the Father of Our Country with, apparently, the mother of the flag in the process of giving birth — firmly establishing, to Dr. Marvin at least, the flag as the “body” of the republic. That flag appeared to Francis Scott Key by the dawn’s early light; was carried into Harper’s Ferry by John Brown and then into battle by Union soldiers; was sung to at every Major League Baseball game beginning in 1917; was raised (and then raised again for photographic posterity) at Iwo Jima; was paraded about by the Ku Klux Klan and celebrated by Father Coughlin, in despicable attempts to associate it with white Christian supremacy; was used for who-the-hell-knows-what-purpose by George H.W. Bush during a notorious 1988 flag-factory campaign stop; and, following 9/11, appeared on the lapel of Bush’s idiot son, his many minions, and just about every single Republican politician (and, for a time, most Democrats, too).

Barack Obama eventually, quietly, took off his pin, and when asked last year why he had done so he responded, “You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11 — particularly as we’re talking about the Iraq War, that [pin] became a substitute for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security — I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

Naturally, the right wing jumped all over him — how dare he campaign to lead our country without wearing a cheap, easy symbol! — just as they did this week following Michelle Obama’s ill-advised “for the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country” comment. This time, he responded by noting that patriotism is a set of ideas expressed in action, not a flag-shaped piece of tin on a lapel or a hand over a heart during the anthem, or a knee-jerk expression of pride in a country whose government is recently responsible for Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, Plamegate and preemptive invasion, warrantless wiretapping and waterboarding.

The wingnuts are sure to keep whining about his refusal to conform to their flag-accessory dictates or about keeping his hands at his sides during the anthem, the way most everybody does when they hear it at a ballgame (as Obama himself noted). For that matter, they’re sure to raise puerile questions about his middle name and his African heritage, and make sometimes-careful, sometimes-not insinuations about which mental or physical attributes might be endemic to a person with his skin color. (Despite his later apology, McCain’s profound error in allowing a race-baiting asshole like Bill Cunningham to introduce him the other day with repeated attacks on “Barack Hussein Obama” severely undercut Johnny Mac’s claim to honorable behavior in these matters.)

Assuming he wins the nomination, Obama might want to respond by borrowing a gimmick from my favorite munchkin, Dennis Kucinich, and carrying a pocket Constitution in his jacket. With a flourish, Obama can simply remind the nation that he, and the Democratic Party, carry the ideals of the nation with them. His Republican attackers can hide behind their flag pins all they want; they’ll still have a lot to answer for.