At a time when it looks like we’re about to start a war with Iran, gas is over $4 a gallon and our economy is in trouble, the best it seems we can do is argue over whether Barack Obama is a patriot. In fact, Obama is a good American just like John McCain. The ones I worry about are those whose definition of patriotism is so narcissistic that they exclude from the category anyone who disagrees with them, because if there is any worthy definition of a bad American it is someone is unwilling to share the place with others.
The whole matter would not be so important if it weren’t for the media force feeding it to the public as though it were something real rather than the cynical spin of conservative vote scroungers. Whenever a dumb issue becomes dominant in a campaign you can reasonably count on the media to embrace it, not out of ideology, but from the relief of discovering something easy enough for it to understand. You can have endless talk shows on the subject without the danger that facts might suddenly intrude. One could just as easily have a debate on which candidate is most likely to enter heaven or sleeps best on his side.
The matter is further intensified by a nonsensical conflating of patriotism and heroism. Heroism is considered in America a lifetime pass to patriotism even though, as Joseph Conrad noted, the hero and the coward are those who, for one brief moment, do something out of the ordinary. At least the ones we honor, that is. The career firefighter, the inner city grandmother raising six grandchildren whose father is in jail and mother has a lousy job, or the teacher year after year helping to save those who society has preemptively discarded are not treated as sacred, as heroes, or as worthy of special honor during political campaigns and or on the evening news. But killing some Iraqis of Vietnamese, or being killed by them, now that’s the real thing
Our perversion of patriotism and courage is heightened by the fact that most of the modern media has had no personal involvement in the military. They frequently have a fairy tale notion of what it is all about, one that it happily passed on to citizens on the evening news. So deep is this bias that the media consistently treats those who follow the way of peace – even heroically or with consistent courage – as crazies not worth scheduling for comment.
The media’s handling of the matter is so rotten that it even takes shots at a general who dares to criticized another military man whom the press had designated as a hero. Here’s the exchange with CBS’s Bob Schieffer:
GENERAL CLARK – I certainly honor [McCain’s] service as a prisoner of war. . . But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded – that wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall.
BOB SCHIEFFER – Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down
GENERAL CLARK – Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
Is there any grounds to disagree with General Clark? Only cowardice, swiftly demonstrated by Barack Obama (whom Clark is pushing) who acted as though the general had committed some ghastly sin. Obama followed his timidity by a dreadfully pompous, self righteous speech on patriotism. Do we really have to go through all this, just to have a better president than John McCain? It really shouldn’t have been this difficult.
When you add it up, there are really three offenders in these instances:
– Rovian right wingers who create the false issue in the first place
– A media that propels the fake issue into false prominence
– Democrats like Obama whose foolish efforts at exculpation are seen as a sign of weakness and encouragement by those who started the problem in the first place. And so the circle turns again.
McCain has one big advantage over Obama: he knows who he is. He doesn’t know that he shouldn’t be proud of who he is, and in fact should apologize for it, but he projects the sort of confidence of his role as an American to which other Americans respond positively. To often, Democrats like Obama behave is if these things were matters of intellectual consideration, or just commercial branding problems, rather than an expression of spirit and style. As Louis Armstrong once said of jazz, if you have to ask how to act American you’ll never know.
This, of course, doesn’t mean you’re not American; just that you’re badly prepared to deal with the fools who suggest that you’re not.
I learned this lesson when I was still a teen, living in Philadelphia during the mayoral campaign of Richardson Dilworth. Dilworth’s mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. . .
Dilworth on one occasion got into a fist fight with a member of his audience. His wife once knocked an aggressive heckler off the platform with her handbag and, in a later campaign, his daughter picketed the office of the GOP candidate with a sign reading, “Why won’t you debate the issues with my father on TV?”
The Republicans responded with sneers, rumors and allegations about Dilworth’s liberalism and, in particular, his association with Americans for Democratic Action. The GOP city chairman, William Meade, called ADA communist-infiltrated and ‘inside pink’ where “Philadelphia members of that radical and destructive [Democratic] party have gone underground and joined the Dilworth ranks.”
Dilworth’s initial reaction was to call Meade a “liar” and to challenge him to a debate. Said Dilworth: “The ADA acted and struck hard against communism while Mr. Meade and his gang created by their corruption the very conditions that breed communism.”
But that wasn’t enough for Dilworth. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in ADA. When Meade demurred, Dilworth said Meade had accused him of treason: “If you want to debate publicly, I’ll go before any organization you name. I’ll go before your ward leaders. I challenge you to produce evidence of a single Communist or Communist sympathizer in ADA. I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”
“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.
Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won.
It took courage, but more than that, it took self understanding and pride of a sort campaign consultants these days try to wean candidates from. No one again ever doubted who Dilworth was; with Obama they’re still trying to find out.