James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘George H.W. Bush’

‘Oh-bomb-a-nation’: Another chickenhawk president ‘Extenze’ a war

Posted by James McPherson on December 1, 2009

American commanders-in-chief apparently tend to have extremely small penises. I’m obviously in no position to know for sure (though perhaps Michaele Salahi is), but how else can you explain presidents’ unending need to prove their manhood through meaningless and ultimately counterproductive warfare?

Maybe it’s guilt, since recent presidents also have been “men” who managed to avoid military service themselves. Or maybe they feel shame because of their common inability to produce male offspring who might carry on the family name (or, in the case of George H. W. Bush, shame because of the males who will carry it on).

Whatever the reason, presidents do love their toy soldiers. And those soldiers generally remain willing to risk life, limb and marriage, guided by a combination of patriotism, presidential lies, and a lack of economic options (thanks in part to an economy hampered by war spending).

Instead of pulling his (Lyndon) Johnson, so to speak, to turn Afghanistan into another Vietnam, Obama should be pulling troops out of that unwinnable conflict. Through withdrawal he could be the first president since Jimmy Carter not to go out of his way to kill people to prove he’s a tough guy, and maybe in the process avoid being a one-term president. Of course we all know what a wuss Amy’s dad was.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Sexism & feminism make women winners & losers?

Posted by James McPherson on January 4, 2009

“When is it sexism?” asks a Daily Beast piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel, best known as the sometimes-controversial author of the books Prozac Nation (published when she was 26 and later turned into a straight-to-DVD Christina Ricci movie) and Bitch: In Defense of Difficult Women

Though the self-absorbed and one-time plagiarist Wurtzel apparently thinks she is a far more important cog in the overall scheme of feminism than she is, she does sometimes raise interesting questions about the nature of feminism–as with this piece, in which she determines that Sarah Palin’s “Wardrobegate” was “sorta” sexist, while questioning Caroline Bouvier Kennedy’s qualificatons is not (and yes, Wurtzel includes the middle name as a apparent “Hussein”-like punctuation of her central point).

Wurtzel writes that feminism is in “a fine mess,” thanks in part to prominent political women: “In 2000, New York elected Hillary Rodham Clinton to be its first female senator—and her primary qualification was her previous position as first lady. Now that she’s moving on, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy is likely to replace her—and her primary qualification is her previous position as first daughter.”

While I also don’t think Kennedy is the best choice to fill the vacant seat, I would point out that she has held several jobs. Like Wurtzel, she also attended law school (and apparently unlike Wurtzel, even passed her bar exam). Still, Wurtzel addresses an important overall theme when  it comes to working women:

The truth is, Kennedy long ago made choices that so many women make—she opted out of professional life, perhaps to be a mom and perhaps because she could—and now she’s hoping to reenter the commercial world at a level that far surpasses her exiting locale. All women who take time off to mother their children face similar sticker-shock when they decide to work again. Not only have they lost their qualifications by remaining dormant for a stretch, they also find that their earning power is much less than it was when they went into labor. In fact, studies show that there is salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job. In the meantime, a man with a stay-at-home wife gets a nice premium—he will usually earn 30 percent more than the husband of a working wife because he has “zero-drag” at home. Just the same, a woman who works a 40-hour week still spends about 86 percent as much time with her children as a nonworking mom—not much of a difference at all—and she is still the primary parent, delegating tasks to the father, who needs a list of instructions before he doles out child care.

Women should be hired and promoted based on their professional abilities, Wurtzel argues: “Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that’s that. What does Kennedy know of this hellishness? She hasn’t held a paid position since her children were born, nor did she have a proper job even before that.”

Still, aside from the question of what constitutes a “proper job,” I find it interesting that Wurtzel’s books seem to get more attention from reviewers than warranted by their insights–perhaps less because of her own hard work or academic qualifications than because of her own looks (which allowed her to pose provocatively for the cover photos of her books, apparently topless in at least three cases).

The fact that physical appearance matters is, of course, one of many complicating issues in regard to feminism. One of the respondents to the Daily Beast article applied some of the contradictions to Palin:

The problem with embracing Palin as a latter day sufferer of sexism is that ignores the object in favor of the symbol. Palin is one who used her sex whenever should get away with it to get ahead. Unlike so many women who have worked so hard to be appreciated for their skills and intelligence, Palin has often been content to get by with a wink and smile. Palin is a tough as nails politician and very ambitious, but beyond that it is hard to see what her skills are. Palin’s image is a throw back to the frontier woman who could both wield a weapon and satisfy her man -and cook moose stew, too! This image is what all these (mostly) old Republicans love. How this fits into idea of feminism that most of us grew up with is less clear. So, was Palin skewered in the press for her shopping spree because she was a woman or because she set herself up as a woman who was thrifty and had little use for East Coast types would call ‘fashionable’?

In truth, Palin would not have been chosen as John McCain’s running mate (nor would I have recommended that McCain choose her) if she were not a woman. I also happen to agree with Geraldine Ferraro that Barack Obama would not have been where he is if not for his race.

But so what? None of our previous presidents would have won the White House if they had not been white men. We likely would never have heard of John McCain after 1973, had he not been a former POW who left his wife to marry an heiress who could help fund his political ambitions. George W. Bush would be just another failed businessman if not for his father’s political clout–which came mostly because George H.W. Bush had been Ronald Reagan’s VP, not because of his own abilities.

Gender and race matter, in different ways at different times. But they are not the sole factors for anyone’s success or failure. Palin also would not have been tabbed by McCain if she hadn’t already been elected governor of Alaska, and Obama would not have just moved his family to Washington if he had not been a U.S. senator who ran a brilliant presidential campaign.

 Back to Wurtzel and feminism: Some critics have voiced similar criticism of another pretty face of “third-wave feminism,” former Al Gore advisor Naomi Wolf. But Wolf  is a former Rhodes scholar, a mother, and a lifelong explorer of ideas that range far beyond self-aggrandizement or even feminism to civil rights and citizenship.

To Wurtzel’s credit, at least she apparently recognizes the egocentricity of her own work, telling ABC: “I’m in on the joke. I know that it’s self-indulgent. I’m amazed that people don’t realize that I know what’s going on.”

So now that we all know she knows, I don’t suppose it’s sexist to start ignoring Wurtzel, as we look to the kind of women–including Wolf, Clinton, Kennedy, and Palin–more likely to make a meaningful difference for both women and men in America.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Hannity snubbed for man of the year, but named liar of the year

Posted by James McPherson on December 19, 2008

I tend to pay less attention to Sean Hannity than to Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter, in large part because I have trouble believing that anyone really pays any attention to Hannity.

Mind you, I don’t understand why anyone listens to O’Reilly or Coulter, either, but since they are regular guests on the so-called “liberal media” I have to assume that they do have some sort of deluded following. I occasionally check in on all of them because it’s my job as a media scholar–kind of like a doctor who has to occasionally check a patient for prostate cancer.

Still, even Hannity gets more attention than he deserves. I noted pretty much in passing in my last book that he was a liar, but this week Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, named him its “Misinformer of the Year.”

Even if you consider the source of the “award,” however, that doesn’t explain Hannity’s actions later that same night, when he suggested that Time magazine had named Barack Obama its “Person of the Year” so that a writer for the magazine would get a job in the Obama administration.

Hannity’s report begins: “So as 2008 comes to a close, Time Magazine picks its Person of the Year, and to no one’s surprise, Time has chosen President-elect Barack Obama to grace the cover. This honor comes as the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, leaves his post to become Joe Biden’s director of communication.”

When Fox News personality Kirsten Powers noted the obvious, that there was “no connection” and that Obama “would have been Man of the Year anyway,” Hannity offered this gem: “You know what? There have been a lot of great people over the years. I know this burst Obama of the ‘yes, we can’ chanting, Obama mania media, but there are other good leaders in the world besides a man who’s done nothing so far.”

Powers, no doubt used to Hannity’s unique combination of bluster and ignorance, did not embarrass him by asking which of those “good leaders” he thought Time should have picked.

Incidentally I agree that the mainstream media love Obama too much–but this year was there any other choice? And for the record,  Time has named a just-elected president more often than not every four years since 1964 (Lyndon Johnson), also tabbing Richard Nixon (shared with Henry Kissinger), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Apparently Time editors were as amazed as I was that Bush won twice.

Time also named Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and  Harry Truman in 1948, while picking John F. Kennedy 1961 because of his 1960 win. Presidents or future presidents named in non-election years were FDR (twice more), Dwight D. Eisenhower (twice), Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan (with Yuri Andropov), George H. W. Bush and Clinton (with Kenneth Starr). See all the “Person of the Year” covers here.

This year’s the runners-up were Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy (also president of the European Union), Sarah Palin (if she had won, I’ll bet Hannity wouldn’t say she’d “done nothing”), and Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who produced the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Apparently, using Hannity’s logic, Jay Carney didn’t want a job in the EU or in the Chinese film industry.

Of course Hannity is right, in one respect: So far, Obama has “done nothing”: at least not much of anything other than coming from nowhere to inspire huge worldwide crowds, and then beating Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party to become the first African American to win the presidency.

On the other hand, Obama hasn’t cured cancer, stopped the Iraq War or saved the economy–or figured out a way to get Hannity to shut up.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Why conservatives may want to sit this election out and let Obama win

Posted by James McPherson on October 31, 2008

Obviously most conservatives will keep pulling for John McCain to pull out a win on Tuesday, and McCain likely will continue his unprecedented slog through the mud (tempered with an appearance this weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” where he can have a conversation with a fake Sarah Palin that is as convincing as his rapport with the real Sarah Palin).

Still, barring something dramatic, unexpected and/or illegal, Barack Obama is likely to win the election handily (as I predicted a couple of months ago). Even NBC’s electoral map, one of the most conservative, now predicts 286 electoral votes for Obama, with 89 too close to call. But Obama also leads in most of those “toss up” states, including Nevada, Florida, Ohio and Indiana. CNN’s electoral map now has Obama leading by significant margins in enough states to claim 291 electoral votes, with 84 more up for grabs. Even just the 291 count, which National Public Radio also predicts, is 21 more than needed (the exact total offered by Pennsylvania).

CBS has the only map I found that doesn’t yet push Obama over 270 (giving him a 259-163, but it also leaves more states uncommitted. As I’ve noted previously, the so-called liberal mainstream media want to keep things close, and don’t want to be proven wrong. Incidentally, Fox News doesn’t have an electoral map (perhaps because the network hates to air news that might be detrimental to the McCain campaign), but Bill O’Reilly does, and even he puts Obama’s current lead at 286-163.

Non-media maps have things looking even tougher for the GOP. Real Clear Politics and Congressional Quarterly gives Obama 311 electoral votes as of today. Even more notably, so does Karl Rove, the man once known as “Bush’s Brain” and on whom some conservatives now place much of the blame for the current woeful state of the conservative movement. Politico’s map gives Obama 353 electoral votes, and VoteFromAbroad.org pegs the count as 364-171.

So what’s a distraught Republican to do? For one thing, he or she might recognize that an Obama win might well turn out to be the best possible outcome for conservatives. It is well known that conservatives has been no big fan of McCain’s, and in fact they have only one good reason to support his presidential bid: the chance that he might be able to solidify the hard right perspective of the Supreme Court. But other than that somewhat iffy possibility, there are a number of reasons conservatives probably should favor Barack Obama, instead.

Addressing the court issue first, McCain may not be able to change the court even if he is elected. He would try to make the court even more conservative, but his nominations to fill the expected two or three vacancies would have to get through a Senate approval process. And the older, more liberal members of the court might decide not to retire, hoping to outlast or outlive McCain (and good luck to a President Palin trying to get anything past a Democratic Congress).

On the other hand, even if Obama has the opportunity to replace three justices, in all likelihood he’ll replace three of the more liberal members of the court with three others who think much like them. The overall makeup of the court itself won’t change, unless Obama makes a mistake–as Dwight D. Eisenhower and other presidents have done in the past–and accidentally appoints someone who turns out to be something other than what Democrats expect. Think of the delicious irony for conservatives if Obama should happen to appoint the justice(s) who solidifies or even strengthens the court’s conservative activist stance for a generation to come.

Even national politics are unlikely to change a lot–to to become in the words of a Times of London columnist “a liberal heaven“–or to change nearly enough, for some of us. We live in a country with politics that have become increasingly conservative, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere.

History also shows that presidents, once elected, tend to govern more like the opposite party, probably in an attempt to build larger coalitions and to recognize grand ambitions. That might explain why Richard Nixon went to China, Ronald Reagan went to the Soviet Union, and Bill Clinton approved NAFTA, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and welfare reform.

A decisive loss may help conservatives refocus their party. How they might do so remains anyone’s guess–Reagan managed to help create a coalition of otherwise distrustful neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, before the neocons won. Conservative Republicans already have a meeting planned for just days after this election to try to rebuild the party, .

Finally, back in 1988, I told friends that Democrats should hope for a win by George H.W. Bush, because in my view the economy was about to hit a rough spot and whoever was in office would get much of the blame. Bush won, the economy plunged, and Bill “It’s the economy, stupid” Clinton won in 1992.

The same is true today, though of course the economy is already in the toilet. But it’s not going to be fixed in four years, and unless Obama and a Democratic Congress take dramatic steps that I think they’ll be afraid to take, they’ll get the blame for not fixing things quickly enough–setting the stage for yet another Republican revolution in 2012.

Other predictions for the GOP in 2012: Mitt Romney will be the likely GOP nominee, and the Religious Right will continue to decline in influence.

Posted in History, Politics, Religion, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Conservative media endorsing Obama; McCain’s options dwindle

Posted by James McPherson on October 18, 2008

I wrote earlier this month, a couple of times (here and here) last month, and even back in May about how the John McCain campaign has managed to turn off conservatives. The trend continues, as a number of newspapers and at least one conservative talk show host (who actually worked for George H.W. Bush) that traditionally support Republicans have come out in support of Barack Obama.

I’ve noted elsewhere how most of the newspapers that make up much of the so-called “liberal media” have endorsed Republican presidential candidates in every election this century except three: 1964 (when Barry Goldwater was viewed as too extremist; incidentally, now he’d be a moderate Republican); 1992 (when then-candidate George H.W. Bush was known to be involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and had shifted attention away from discussion of that issue by bashing the media); and very narrowly in 2004 (after George W. Bush and a Republican Congress had brought us the Iraq War, a spiraling deficit and the Patriot Act).

This clearly will be the first time this century that in back-to-back elections the majority of newspapers will endorse the Democratic candidate. Arguing that “McCain put his campaign before his country” and comparing Obama to Abraham Lincoln (making previously cited comparisons to Ronald Reagan, FDR and Goldwater and seem small), the Chicago Tribune is endorsing a Democrat for the first time in its long history (endorsing Lincoln, for example) as a proud conservative newspaper. Another nod came from from the Los Angeles Times, which last endorsed a candidate–Richard Nixon–in 1972.

Other key endorsements received by Obama include those from the Denver Post, the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Boston Globe, El Diario, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle (at least the last two of those would be expected in virtually any election year, of course) and newspapers in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

Some Republicans and media talking heads now are atwitter because the national polls seem to have tightened a bit. But as I’ve pointed out previously, national polls mean little–and Obama continues, at least for now, to control the national electoral map. As expected, most Hillary Clinton voters recognize that Obama better represents their interests than McCain. And both campaigns are hitting traditionally Republican states, Obama to try to expand his lead and McCain as a last-ditch strategy to try to eke out a narrow win.

There still is time for the election to swing toward McCain, of course. Perhaps Sarah Palin will be so impressive tonight on “Saturday Night Live” that she’ll trigger a wave of GOP support. Maybe she’ll start answering questions from the media, and manage to do so in a coherent fashion.

Maybe the don’t-look-at-the-economy-please negative attacks on Obama or on the media by the McCain camp and various nutball supporters like Michelle Bachman will start to take hold–or maybe the McCain folks will figure out that those attacks aren’t likely to depress the turnout enough to help their candidate win, so they’ll go back and dust off the kindler, gentler McCain.

Maybe Colin Powell will endorse McCain instead of Obama tomorrow morning on “Meet the Press,” and maybe he retains enough credibility despite helping lie us into the Iraq War to have an influence. Perhaps a new “terrorist attack” will occur just in time to chase fearful ignoramuses toward McCain. Perhaps Republicans will manage to simply steal another election, though their voter suppression tactics probably are more likely to prevent a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate than to keep Obama out of the White House.

Still, even if some of those factors come into play, it’s probably too late for a McCain victory–and, sadly, perhaps too late to save his reputation.

Next day update: Powell did endorse Obama this morning (prompting Pat Buchanan to question Powell’s loyalty just minutes ago on “Hardball“–saying the endorsement smacked of “opportunism”–while suggesting that Powell was basing his decision on race and that the most-respected military man in America was not a real Republican, anyway). Perhaps less importantly, Fareed Zakaria, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer (the biggest newspaper in Ohio, the state that gave the 2004 presidential election to Bush), and the Houston Chronicle also endorsed Obama this weekend.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

PUMAs stalk political relevance–and irony

Posted by James McPherson on July 25, 2008

The PUMA is an interesting species. Some critics might view PUMAs in the way many wrongly characterized Hillary Clinton, as bitter harpies. Others might see them as the type of women that misogynists typically prefer: silly, irrelevant, perhaps even cute.

Either characterization is mistaken (PUMA, by the way, generally stands for “Party Unity My Ass,” though one group has claimed “People United Means Action.”). PUMAs obviously are wrong and misguided, in my view, but passionate. And now they’re getting what many of them want most, some media attention.

PUMAs are angry people, mostly women, many of whom now say they’ll support John McCain over Barack Obama. There’s no denying that there are quite a few of them (though how many are GOP fronts can’t be determined) or that many are bitter. A quick scan of some of their blogs comes across such charming comments as, “Whenever I see one of those stupid “O”s on the back of someone else’s care [sic] I just want to RAM THEM!!!” and “Isn’t ‘barack’ that noise people make when they puke?” and “Do obama supporters still get headaches after they had their lobomy? [sic]” and “Even if Hillary should publicly–in person–denounce all 527s who are trying to get her nominated and elected, we can’t give throw [sic] in the towel. Clearly, the Chicago political mafia is strong-arming her to disown us.”

One blog post is titled, “If we’re PUMAs, then Obamaphiles are CHEATahs.” Cute, huh? Of course the difference is that PUMAs proundly claim the title before going on to disparage those who would prefer a different candidate. (This might be an appropriate time to remind readers that I was not an Obama supporter in the primaries, though I can’t imagine not voting for him over McCain in the general election.)

The CHEATah post comes from a blog that in its “About Us” section states: “We will start with the Democratic party and then work to bring together the rest of the country. We will come together at our common goals and go forward together, strengthened and mighty.” Its “credo,” in part: “We will all need to come together before the fall. Let’s craft a message that even wingers will envy. … Some of us have lost our minds lately. We are putting conditions and litmus tests on our candidates. We are getting lost in the trees while failing to see the forest.”

All of that may sound good, but the blog actually devotes much of its attention to PUMA promotion and Obama bashing, and also has a heading titled “PUMA Power” that states: “There will be a lot of calls for ‘Unity!’. But let us acknowledge what this really is. ‘Unity’ is a weapon that the party is going to use against us.” Perhaps it’s time to update one or two of the above categories.

Despite their real or manufactured fury PUMAs probably will have no meaningful effect on the Democratic Convention as far as preventing Obama from claiming the nomination, especially since Clinton likely will speak on his behalf at the convention. Still, in a tight general election (the kind we typically have) they might conceivably make a difference. Sadly and ironically, it would be a difference that goes against most of their own primary interests (at least those who aren’t secretly McCain supporters to begin with–like perhaps Fox’s favorite PUMA spokeswoman and 2000 McCain donor Darragh Murphy).

PUMAs might make a difference in the same way that Ralph Nader did against Al Gore in 2000, Ross Perot did against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Ronald Reagan did against Gerald Ford in 1976–drawing just enough attention and votes to help put the candidate their supporters disliked most in the White House. The difference in each of those cases was that the candidate’s supporters actually had a candidate who obviously still sought the position, while Clinton likely will–as she has repeatedly on previous occasions–exhort her supporters to do what they can to avoid a continuation of the Bush policies. A McCain presidency would have a good chance of turning those 5-4 Supreme Court votes against progressives into 7-2 votes against them.

Thus far, consistency, except in avoid-Obama-at-all-costs rhetoric, has not been a key part of PUMA power. Even Fox News, which would undoubtedly love to see PUMAs help swing the election for McCain and which has aired more about the group than any other network, can’t help but point out the contradictions. For example, see the YouTube videos below. The last one starts out much the same as the first, but adds some interesting context (though it doesn’t explore the disconnect between, “I don’t think it’s just to prove a point; I think it’s a very important point we’re making.”).

It’s difficult to tell how much influence the PUMAs will have, especially since many of those now complaining will swallow hard, hold their noses and vote for Obama in the general election, perhaps without telling their fellow PUMAs. The influence of blogs on elections also is unknown, though I don’t believe the vast majority of blogs are very representative of much of anything since most tend to have a limited following of serious but somewhat cowardly anonymous supporters who talk mostly to each other–a sort of ooh-look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever form of text messaging with less emotional commitment and no added wireless fees.

PUMAs do have cause to be unhappy, though not nearly as much cause as many of them claim. The Democratic primary system was a mess, but it was a mess that Clinton helped create. Interestingly, some of her supposed staunchest supporters now hope to make a bigger one.

Note: The organization name is corrected above–thanks to the respondents who noted that I had it wrong.

Follow-up: Somewhat ironically for a group that complains about being heard, PUMA sites seem to be among those most likely to delete the responses of those who disagree with them.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Burn a flag for the Fourth

Posted by James McPherson on July 3, 2008

The Fourth of July weekend is an appropriate time to discuss patriotism and its ultimate icon, the American Flag. Barack Obama and liberals draw considerable criticism for failing to honor the flag in ways deemed appropriate by conservatives, while some self-defined patriots apparently can’t wait to find new ways to use the flag to break the law.

As fearful as some conservatives and weak-willed legislators are about flag-burning liberals, I’d be willing to bet that more conservatives than liberals will engage in unlawful flag-related behavior this weekend–in many cases an unfortunate byproduct of combining patriotism with ignorance. And that would be true even if flag burning were made illegal, rather than just being the legally proper way to dispose of a worn flag.

Part of the problem comes because many people seem to consider the flag a religious symbol. Most don’t go as far as the Ku Klux Klan, which may offer the most extreme version of conflating patriotism and Christianity (its two “guiding principles) with its three primary symbols, “the Flag, the Constitution and the Holy Bible”–though for some modern variations of the Klan (others here and here), the Stars and Bars flag seems to be more important than the Stars and Stripes. But while most conservatives have little in common with the Klan, the various apparel versions of “these colors don’t run” T-shirts also fetishize the flag. I’m no Jehovah’s Witness, but I do appreciate the Witness’ Supreme Court-approved stance that saluting the flag (which I do, incidentally, though I don’t own a flag pin) might be deemed idolatry.

George H.W. Bush campaigned in front of a flag factory and won points by berating Michael Dukakis for vetoing a bill (which would have been unconstitutional), requiring public teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance (which Bush himself had never recited as a student, though Dukakis had). Bush’s actions prompted cartoonist Garry Trudeau to drape his invisible Bush characterization with a U.S. flag.

Conservative wingnuts, helped by the mainstream media, now are using flag pins and the National Anthem to try to portray Obama as non-patriotic (Time offers a short history of the relatively brief life of the flag pin). Yet many of those same conservatives regularly violate the U.S. Flag Code, adopted during the hyper-patriotism of World War II.

Here are some relevant sections of the flag code, along with examples of the law being violated–including by the current president Bush:

“The flag should form a distinctive feature of the ceremony of unveiling a statue or monument, but it should never be used as the covering for the statue or monument.”

 

“The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”

“The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”

“The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.”

 

“The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”

 George Bush desecrates a flag:

“The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

  

“No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.”

 

“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

The fact is, how best to express one’s patriotism can be complicated. For example, my three favorite versions of the National Anthem, all of which in the right circumstances can still bring tears to my eyes, all feature performers who would not even have been fully recognized as people when this nation was founded. The first, by Jimi Hedrix, is an anti-war version performed during Woodstock. The second might be viewed as a pro-war version, performed by Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl during the first Persian Gulf War. And in the third basketball coach Mo Cheeks rescued a young girl who under pressure forgot the words to the song. I’ve posted YouTube versions of all three below.

The complications of patriotism are discussed further in an excellent essay by Time‘s Peter Beinart, who points out that common liberal and conservative versions of patriotism both are flawed:

When it comes to patriotism, conservatives and liberals need each other, because love of country requires both affirmation and criticism. It’s a good thing that Americans fly the flag on July 4. In a country as diverse as ours, patriotic symbols are a powerful balm. And if people stopped flying the flag every time the government did something they didn’t like, it would become an emblem not of national unity but of political division. On the other hand, waving a flag, like holding a Bible, is supposed to be a spur to action. When it becomes an end in itself, America needs people willing to follow in the footsteps of the prophets and remind us that complacent ritual can be the enemy of true devotion.

Patriotism should be proud but not blind, critical yet loving. And liberals and conservatives should agree that if patriotism entails no sacrifice, if it is all faith and no works, then something has gone wrong. The American who volunteers to fight in Iraq and the American who protests the war both express a truer patriotism than the American who treats it as a distant spectacle with no claim on his talents or conscience.

So honor your country this Fourth of July by burning a U.S. flag, if your own flag is worn out. Then replace it with a clean new one, symbolic of America’s promise as well as its past.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl

Mo Cheeks and Natalie Gilbert

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