How Can You Be President If You Don’t Wear A Lapel Pin?

Ken AshfordElection 20081 Comment

In response to a reporter’s question about why he doesn’t wear a flag pin, Barack Obama gave what I thought to be an excellant response:

"You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin," Obama said. "Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.

"Instead," he said, "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."

And in response, the conservative punditry squawked.  Jonah Goldberg described Obama’s perspective as "staggeringly stupid," and "the single dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of him doing."


"It just shows you he’s not ready for the big time," conservative Laura Ingrams opined on Fox News.

But here’s my favorite:

Said Sean Hannity: "Why do we wear pins? Because our country is under attack!"

Yes, Sean.  Lapel pins are the best safeguard against terrorist attacks.

I used to think these guys valued symbols over substance.  But they actually think symbols ARE substance.

UPDATE: Atrios weighs in:

It’s Always 2001

Are we really discussing flag lapel pins?

Please kill me.

UPDATE:  Eugene Volokh tut-tuts Obama’s decision with an odd amalogy:

Wearing a flag pin is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument, just as “I love you” is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument. It’s supposed to be a traditional statement of affection, powerful because it’s cliché.

If you’re in the sort of relationship in which you’ve never made such a statement — and here flag pin wearing is a little different than “I love you,” since most citizens who love their country don’t routinely say it — then you can indeed show your love in other ways. Returning to the analogy, you hear occasionally of old-fashioned couples who’ve never fallen into the “I love you” habit, but who love each other nonetheless.

Yet if you used to say this and then you stopped, the symbolic message is pretty powerful. And that’s true even though many people say “I love you” without meaning it (just as there are some who wear the flag pin but are just opportunists, not patriots). Even if this abuse of the phrase weakens its symbolism, an outright renunciation of the phrase retains its symbolism just fine.

…but I think this commentor’s rebuttal is better:

This has got to be the craziest analogy and the most absurd argument that I’ve ever seen you make. Metaphor aside, a sovereign state is not a woman, it doesn’t need to be "told" that you love it, and it’s not going to "think" anything if such professions of affection were to suddenly cease– because, of course, it is an abstraction that lacks any capacity for conscious thought. To cast the red-herring analogy aside, Obama is absolutely right that those ridiculous flag pins are nothing more than empty symbolism for some half-baked sentiment (really, is there a candidate for public office who doesn’t "support the country," whatever that may mean?), and is right–I hope– in believing that voters are more interested in substantive discussions of the multitude of real challenges that will face the next administration than in vapid symbolism. If the next presidential election is determined on the basis of which candidate wears the right lapel pin, American democracy has sunk even further than I currently believe.