The charge that Senator Barack Obama is “unpatriotic” is so preposterous that it is hard to imagine any sane person not driven by partisan extremism actually taking it seriously. And so I found it somewhat disheartening that the Senator himself would succumb to such charges to the extent of posing before a bevy of U.S. flags while wearing a red, white, and blue tie (against the backdrop of a white shirt and dark blue suit) as well as a flag pin, or for that matter that the NYT would feature a photograph of it on it’s website this past weekend.
The picture is altogether conventional, of course, and we have seen such images of Senator John McCain (and many other politicians from points all along the political spectrum) in comparable poses all too frequently. Such photographs show up with clocklike regularity to the point of being barely noticeable except for their absence. But one might have hoped for something a little less ordinary, if not less excessive (and a lot less ersatz), from the candidate for change. Indeed, and it pains me to write it, but there is a sense in which the photograph and the mode of patriotism it performs profanes Obama’s otherwise eloquent and compelling plea to locate American patriotism in something a bit more substantial than a “political sword or a political shield.”
This is not to say that one should not honor the flag (nor that politicians should not be sensitive to their public image), but it is to question quite seriously the point of excess at which public displays of flag-waving patriotism by our leaders turn Old Glory into a nationalistic fetish that trivializes both the flag’s political significance and the value of a reflexive patriotism. The symptom of such excess is captured rather eloquently in this photograph of four U.S. flags as they are inverted by their reflection in a puddle on Wall Street:
The building to which the flags are attached is the New York Stock Exchange. The image thus captures the rich ironies of the identification of the United States with the street often characterized as the “economic capital of the world” as each seems to have stumbled from grace and economic power on the global stage in recent times. It is literally a world turned upside down as the flags are now displayed both with the stripes above the shield and backwards; no longer furling on high, something to which we might look up to, they seem to reach upward to the ground (or is it to consciousness?) as if buried deep below (or should we say repressed?), virtually begging for attention; indeed, rather than something to be revered, the flag—or all four of them to be exact—are barely noticeable at all by passersby as pedestrian feet seem not even to break stride in their presence.
During a week dedicated to celebrating the nation’s birth it should give us pause to reflect on the effects of an ersatz patriotism.
Photo Credits: Jae C. Hong/AP; Justin Lane/EPA