Conservatives have been conducting an e-mail and Internet smear campaign for months, suggesting that Senator Obama is a Muslim intent on destroying the United States. During the weeks leading up to the recent Wisconsin primary, many Wisconsinites received the e-mail multiple times. Senator Obama and his campaign have been trying to correct the misinformation, but the smear goes on.
The smear campaign focuses on a symbol of patriotism -- a photo of Senator Obama at the Tom Harking picnic a couple of years ago, standing respectfully but not putting his hand over your heart, during the National Anthem -- that is used as evidence that Senator Obama is intent on destroying America.
The "Muslim" aspect of the smear campaign is so patently false that it is a bit much even for Bill O'Reilly, who devoted a few minutes of his program debunking the idea, but the conservative attack machine, including (not surprisingly, I guess) Fox News, have picked up and focused on the "patriotism" issue.
Steve Doocy, co-host of "Fox and Friends", had this to say: "First he kicked his American flag pin to the curb. Now Barack Obama has a new round of patriotism problems. Wait until you hear what the White House hopeful didn't do during the singing of the national anthem." Mark Williams, a former radio host, chimed in: "He felt it OK to come out of the closet as the domestic insurgent he is."
It doesn't take but a few minutes on Google to find an unheavenly host of other examples of the "unpatriot" campaign being waged on conservative talk radio and television.
The "kicked his American flag pin to the curb" reference, for those of you who do not follow the conservative attack machine, is a reference to the fact that Senator Obama does not wear an American flag lapel pin.
In October, Senator Obama told Iowa television station KCRG that he decided to stop wearing a U.S. flag lapel pin because it had become "a substitute for true patriotism", explaining "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."
In my view, Senator Obama is dead right.
The modern conservative movement, beginning with Ronald Reagan, who was a master of image, has wrapped itself in the symbols of patriotism, but not the substance of patriotism.
It has gotten to the point where an increasing number of Americans no longer think that they have any obligation to serve their country, or to sacrifice for their country in time of war. That is frightening, but it explains why we fight supposedly "costless" wars, wars in which Americans think that it is acceptable hire other Americans to fight and aren't even will to help foot the bill by paying for it.
It was not always this way. My generation was raised by World War II veterans, and the obligation to serve was a given for those men and women, and that idea was passed on to us.
We had no doubt at all what our fathers and uncles thought about military service as an obligation -- if the country called you to service, it was your personal obligation to answer the call. We were expected to serve if called -- those of us who were not conscientious objectors were expected to serve in the military, if called, and those who were conscientious objectors were expected to serve outside the military. The underlying principle -- if your country needs you, you should serve -- was identical.
It don't think that's true today. I think that modern conservative reliance on symbol over substance has eroded this principle to the point where the young believe, any longer, that they have a personal obligation to serve. It is enough to "talk the talk" of patriotism, and let others do the service for you.
The substitution of symbol over substance -- measuring patriotism by things like flag lapel pins rather that military service -- is a sea change. And in the world of "talk the talk", things like flag lapel pins have become, to our discredit, important.
As I thought about the "unpatriot" attack machine, I recalled that I didn't remember seeing a flag pin on Senator McCain's lapel, either.
So I did a Google search on Senator McCain, and took a look at a hundred or so pictures of John McCain. In none is Senator McCain wearing a flag pin on his lapel.
I don't know why, of course, and if Senator McCain has explained why, I'm not aware of his statement.
But my guess is that John McCain doesn't wear a flag on his lapel because he carries the flag in his heart, and knows what I know and what all veterans know -- wearing the symbols of patriotism cost the wearer nothing, in marked contrast to military service, which always has a cost and which can cost everything.
So be it.
While I am not certain of Senator McCain's views about touting the symbols of patriotism, I am dead certain of one thing -- between now and November 4, we will not hear John McCain utter a single word questioning Barack Obama's patriotism. Not a single word.
Why am I do certain about that? Because I am a veteran and live in an area where I am surrounded by veterans.
I have yet, in all my years, to hear a veteran, particularly a combat veteran, speak lightly and recklessly about other people's patriotism. We know better, because we know the cost of service, and we know that the cost of service has been paid over the generations by millions of Americans of all political views and attitudes. We know better than to think that patriotism is born of a particular political stance, and we know that those who have demonstrated their patriotism beyond any doubt have no need to posture.
Not so, unfortunately, the right wing attack machine.
I sometimes read a blog called "Yellow Elephant", which tracks the Republican "performance gap" -- pointing out how few Republicans who talk military have actually served, at any point, in any of our armed forces.
I think that "Yellow Elephant" is often unfair because it holds the sons and daughters of prominent Republicans to the sins of their fathers -- criticizing the Romney sons for following the lead of their father and staying out of the military, for example, and that isn't right because the Romney sons are not the ones who have been out on the hustings insisting that the war be fought.
But "Yellow Elephant" does have a point -- the toughest talkers don't seem to think that they or their children have any personal responsibility to serve. As Vice President Cheney so famously put it when asked why he didn't serve in the military during the Vietnam era: "I had other priorities in the 60's than military service."
Along those lines, it is striking to me how few of the talk show patriots have served in the military. In fact, there seems to be an almost perfect inverse correlation -- the louder the mouth questioning someone else's patriotism, the less likely that the mouth is attached to a body that donned a uniform.
Enough said, I suppose, and I'm not expecting that pointing this out will change anything.
The conservative talk show hosts are beyond embarrassment, so pointing out the obvious is not going to get the paper patriots to shut up or put up. Talk is their stock in trade, and talk, unlike service, is cheap.