The Flag in the Lapel

Now we know why Obama took the American flag off his lapel. On July 24, in Berlin, he told us. The American flag is too small to contain him. He is not comfortable being an American citizen, only fully comfortable as a citizen of the world. But “citizen of the world” is a utopian, unreal, angelic, inhuman term, an abstraction of the sort that leads to immense bloodshed as human irregularities are hacked off and angularity is loudly planed away. I agree with Pete Wehner’s observation on Commentary's website that one can be a citizen of the United States, but not -- in anything like the same sense -- of the world. One can enjoy the natural rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, but will not find such rights protected globally, not even in France, as Byron York pointed out last month and again on Friday.

The Berlin speech also explains why Obama is more likely to praise an “ideal” America than the real America. He is bewitched by abstractions and lofty ideals. That is how he touches the secret chords of the heart of so many millions, the teenage romanticism of a world without different real interests, without the clashes of culture, the force of political arguments about who gets what, when, and how.

This conflict between global citizenship and pledging allegiance solely to the flag of the United States and the Republic for which it stands, suggests that we go back again to Senator Obama’s ambivalence about the flag in his lapel.

Obama himself said he wore a flag in his lapel after September 11, 2001, but then did not wear it for several years. Why? On reflection, he judged that wearing a flag in the lapel would be an inadequate symbol of patriotism (HT: Byron York, July 1). That Obama did not wear his flag in his lapel is true. Obama not only was not wearing it, but had a policy statement about why he was not wearing it.

Real patriotism, he clarified, is loving the ideals of a country and dissenting from policies not in line with those ideals.

Here Obama points to a huge divide between left-wingers and ordinary Americans. Ordinary Americans do not love a mere “ideal” out in never-never land. They love the land, the soil, the mountains, the plains, the history, the bloody battles, the mistakes, the rises and falls, the real human history of an altogether human people, the particular, imperfect people of the United States. Left-wingers, by contrast, are continually judging the real country harshly. They often judge it so harshly that their attitudes toward their leaders, their neighbors and the real country as a whole sometimes seem almost like hatred for the country itself.

But the United States is still, blessedly, largely a center-right country in this respect. Obama’s stated positions about why he took the flag out of his lapel, and what he means by patriotism, slightly incline a large number to vote against him. Therefore we can count on Obama showing up on more and more stages so thick with American flags you would think you were at a Ronald Reagan rally – and with the stars and stripes starkly visible on the left lapel of his neat, dark suit. That flag will certainly appear in his lapel a great many more times until the first Tuesday in November. A center-right country will demand it.

As for me, I have been wearing a flag in my lapel since September 11, 2001, and with special care ever since American forces took the war to the place whence it emanated, Afghanistan. As long as brave Americans were willing to accept, if necessary, wounds or death on our behalf, I felt a duty to be faithful to them: “This flag’s for them!” And will stay in my lapel until they are out of harm’s way.

Everyone knows silly bravado when he sees it. So let me lay some out. Since Osama bin Laden is out to harm Americans all he can, it seems only right that we should wear a flag to make it easy for him to find us. It would be disgraceful to cower.

Published in National Review Online July 30, 2008