As you’ll recall, Barack Obama made a controversial sartorial decision last October about what he will and will not wear on his lapel. He declared he will not wear one of those American flag pins that have become so popular among politicians since Sept. 11.
“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” he said while campaigning in Iowa. “Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great. Hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”
His decision was instant red meat for a number of people who wear their patriotism on their sleeves as well as on their lapels. They questioned Obama’s allegiance to his nation and to our troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A couple of weeks later, Obama’s patriotism was questioned again when he failed to put his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem. (I’ve closely reviewed the video of this incident. Bill Richardson and Hillary Clinton, onstage with Obama, had their hands firmly on their hearts. But frankly, listening to the unusual rendition of the anthem being sung at that moment, you have to wonder why all three didn’t have their hands over their ears.)
This is old news, and I wouldn’t bring it up, except for this: I doubt we’ve heard the last about Obama’s allegiance. Watch for replay after replay of the lapel and anthem clips if Obama becomes the Democratic Party’s nominee. In case I’m correct, I’d like to offer a preemptive comment about patriotism.
Lapel pins are cheap. Patriotism is not. All of us would agree, I assume, that serving honorably in the military, and especially in war, is testimony to a person’s patriotism. But some of the public figures we’ve seen wearing the lapel pin actively avoided that sacrifice during Vietnam.
More relevant to this blog, however, is the connection between patriotism and climate change. Someone who knowingly ignores a clear and present danger to America’s future — for example, climate change — has failed a critical test of patriotism, particularly when the danger is ignored willfully for the short-term profits of friendly industries.
On January 24, five days before President Bush’s last State of the Union address, the project on which I work delivered a statement to the White House — a “State of the Climate” message signed by many of the nation’s leading climate experts and by five Nobel laureates. It read, in part:
As the United States approaches the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the most dangerous and difficult challenge of our time remains largely unaddressed. Global climate change continues unabated. The United States is the nation that is most responsible for the problem and most capable of contributing to the solution. Yet today, the United States stands virtually alone among developed nations in refusing to accept the need for decisive action.
Consequently, we regret to report that the state of the nation’s climate policy is poor, and the climate and the ecosystems that depend upon it are showing increasing signs of disruption. Global climate change now threatens not only the environment, but also our national security, our economic stability, and our public health and safety. We can no longer discuss the State of the Union without assessing the state of the nation’s climate.
The statement went on to list the ways in which climate change already is manifesting in the United States and pointed out that it “transcends politics and partisanship.” It closed with this passage:
If this is our defining moment, then let us be known as a people of courage, morality, vision and goodwill — a people who gladly accept the responsibility of ensuring that the America of tomorrow is even better than the America of today. That commitment to the future is required of us if we wish to keep faith with those who founded our nation, with those who have sacrificed for it and with those around the world who look to the United States of America for hope.
That, I submit, is one important definition of patriotism: Keeping faith with the founders, with all of the Americans who have died and sacrificed in other ways to protect the great American experiment, with citizens yet to be born, and with those in other nations to whom ours gives hope. It is an especially important form of loyalty at a time in which we are affecting not just an ecosystem, but an entire planetary life-support system.
This commitment can be promised in words, but it can only be proven in actions. And by that measure, the current president and vice president have flunked the patriotism test, whatever lapel pins they wear.
To be sure, patriotism is not a one-issue virtue. Today’s patriots include not only our armed forces, but also those who are working for social justice, in education, with economically depressed communities — those activities, in other words, that make the American dream more real and sustainable, and the nation stronger, better, and more moral.
Another test of patriotism is our willingness to put aside politics as usual and to show true courage in the profound transformation of economics and ethics necessary to deal successfully with climate change. If the next president does that, I don’t give a damn what he or she wears on his or her lapel.