The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen must be devastated. A mere week after he wrote, “Sometimes I think the best thing about Barack Obama is that little empty space on his lapel,” Senator Obama (as Peter mentioned earlier) has gone and handicapped himself by re-accessorizing his person with an American flag pin.
In a May 6 op-ed, beautifully titled “Pins and Panders,” Cohen questions the automaton patriotism of flag-wearers and describes the pin as “a kitschy piece of empty symbolism.” Yet the man so disgusted with short-cuts to national pride is on board with the super-duper, turbo-charged, mother lode of bandwagon short-cut to national pride: the President as symbol. Cohen describes Obama as “a resplendent emblem of American possibilities.” Perhaps the true patriot wears Barack Obama’s image on his lapel . . .
Still, it is bracing to see a presidential candidate recoil, for the most part, from the orthodoxies of pandering. In this regard, the lack of a flag pin has become an important sign of Obama’s desire to think for himself. For all it says about Obama, I salute it.
Ah, but what will Obama fans salute now? Not, heaven forbid, the flag. And how will they square their belief in the rebel patriot anti-panderer with their candidate’s transparent pandering? Obama has not made it easy for his supporters. It’s hard to keep track of the alternating intelligibility of his gestures. Words were not “just words” until they were uttered by his ex-pastor: then they were “just words” again. He couldn’t denounce anti-American black liberation theology–until he could. He was post-racial until he was, first and foremost, racial. A lapel pin was a substitute for patriotism until it was patriotism itself.
There is one possibility that explains the reappearance of the flag pin as something other than pandering. Perhaps, like his wife Michelle, Obama is for the first time in his adult life, proud of his country. In making him the Democratic nominee, the U.S. has earned his patriotism at last. So the flag’s in place and he’s ready to roll. He shouldn’t push it, though. If his base catches him with his hand over his heart, he could lose it all.