Friday, July 4, 2008

Puerile patriot games

PHILADELPHIA - Fourth of July has never really tripped my patriotic trigger.

Even as a kid, I found the star-spangled napkins, cookies and God forbid, swim trunks garish and empty. Most holiday barbecues I've attended over the years have featured good burgers, beer and the requisite fireworks and exactly zero discussion of America, Thomas Jefferson or the Declaration of Independence.

Now I get that I'm a history geek and most people are content on a rare day off to grouse about the Tigers' trades instead of debate whether property should have been listed as an inalienable right.

But I do deeply love this country. And it makes me a bit queasy to have such a disconnect with that on Independence Day of all days.

When I am filled with absolute wonder and gratitude for our still nascent nation is while reading tomes like Tom Paine's "Common Sense" or David McCullough's "1776," so I've spent many a Fourth with my nose buried in a book.

And there's nothing quite like stepping foot in defining landmarks to make our brief history hit home. So for the past three years, I've observed the birth of our nation at Fort Mackinac, the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and now the City of Brotherly Love.

Standing in the sweltering silver-swathed room where the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration 232 years ago today, I thought it wouldn't be such a bad thing if every American was required to spend the holiday at a museum or significant site before kicking back with a brewski. It isn't a substitute for teaching civics in school like in the days of old, of course, but it's a start.

Given the popularity of Williamsburg, Valley Forge, the National Mall in Washington, Salem, Mass., and The Henry Ford in Dearborn, there's hope yet.

What gives me pause, however, is that patriotism has become a hot topic in the presidential race when most citizens can't name five signers of the Declaration or when most did so (Aug. 2, 1776).

My first reaction when this cropped up during the Democratic primary was that this was one of those idiotic non-issues that would disappear in a few news cycles. With spiking unemployment, $4-plus gas and war in two countries (three counting Iran, according to Sy Hersh) who cares if Barack Obama dons a flag pin?

But then Bill Clinton weighed in about the glorious matchup between his wife and John McCain, musing, "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election between two people who loved this country."

And Michelle Obama's remark that, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback" continues to be reverberate in the right-wing echo chambers online and on the airwaves as proof that she's an angry black woman who hates America.

In her less-than-finest hour, Cindy McCain attempted to furrow her tightly lifted brow and cattily responded, "I'm very proud of my country." Well, isn't that special.

I think first lady Laura Bush got it about right when she discussed the pressure of being a new public figure and said Michelle probably meant she was "more proud." It's refreshing to see a little grace in politics.

What this really comes down to is trust. That's what the Swift Boat ads were about with John Kerry - could we really trust his military record and his ability to lead the country in an age of global terror? Three years after 9/11 (and a year of his conflicted, lumbering campaign), we got our answer.

So do we trust the half-white, half-black, Hawaii- and Indonesia-raised son of a Kenyan Muslim and Kansan Christian? Is he American enough? Or is Obama the Other who couldn't possibly be entrusted to lead our nation?

That is the crass question. And in the blogosphere and viral e-mails, it's put in shockingly racist and bigoted terms.

In case you thought our politics couldn't sink any lower, the left netroots have started to strike back, questioning McCain's flag-waving credentials. This, of course, is one of his unmitigated strengths, as a storied Vietnam War hero Americans trust by double digits to better handle terrorism.

But bloggers like Julie Powers on are willing to swan dive into the cesspool and actually slander McCain's heroism.

"So John, how exactly does sitting on your ass in a POW camp for five years (and then returning only to cheat on your disabled wife and dump her for the Budweiser Barbie) exactly make you such a military expert?" asks Powers, who does PR for gay rights Equality Now group, which I doubt sanctions her inflammatory rhetoric.

OK, then, Jules. Let's throw your butt in the Hanoi Hilton, break your arms and subject you to psychological trauma even worse than reading your own posts and then we'll talk.

On this Fourth of July, I suggest we take a much-needed break from letting the fringes dictate the debate. And let's celebrate our country, which gives people the freedom to say whatever they want, no matter how asinine.

1 comment:

Seth said...

While I agree with most of what you said, I disagree that the politics of character assassination are a wash and equal on both sides. The right has cornered the market on grotesque and nefarious politics, and the transgressions of those on the extreme left pale in comparison to the tactics employed routinely by the mainstream of the GOP.

When the right wing attempts to discourage voters by playing up Obama's race, lying about his religion, and questioning his allegiances - that's illegitimate and ugly politics at its worst (almost as bad as claiming John Kerry came by his purple hearts illegitimately). In fact, they're not even above swift-boating one of their own as Bush did to McCain in 2000 implying he had fathered an illegitimate minority child and that his wife was a drug addict.

It's not illegitimate, however, to press the McCain camp on their candidate's bona fides when it comes to foreign policy.

However tastelessly it may have been phrased by Julie Powers - it's legitimate to ask how McCain's service translates to foreign policy expertise, as the McCain camp has made that a centerpiece of his campaign.

Bob Schieffer made exactly that claim (like much of the media) in criticizing Obama; he proffered that because Obama hadn't been shot down and subjected to torture, he was somehow unqualified to handle foreign policy (never mind his years of living abroad).

Before his comments were taken completely out of context by the scandal-mongering mainstream media - Gen. Wesley Clark raised a perfectly legitimate point (even prefacing it with lengthy and glowing praise of McCain's sacrifice before doing so): being shot down in an airplane makes you tough and brave and illustrates your willingness to selflessly commit to your ideals - but it doesn't mean you can tell the difference between Shi'a and Sunni (as McCain apparently can't, having frequently mixed up the two in public comments).