The other day, I had a common experience. I was driving behind a pick-up truck, whose entire back window was covered with an image of the American flag, with a large bald eagle in the middle. I drew the conclusion anyone else would draw: I imagined I could make a shrewd guess about the political views of the driver.
As common as this experience is, we should not lose sight of the fundamental fact: the appropriation of the most common patriotic symbols by the right has been a strategic disaster for the left.The fact that the right has co-opted the flag and the eagle (see The Colbert Report) has resulted in a situation in which the use of those symbols by anyone on the left appears incongruous, even somewhat insincere. For once they come to represent a particular political ideology, it makes it seem peculiar for people with a quite different ideology to prominently display them. This leads quite directly to ridiculous episodes concerning lapel pins, and to repeated insinuations that the left is not really "patriotic". However idiotic these episodes may seem, they work. There are people who are influenced in their views by these sorts of symbolic gestures.
So far, this diary may seem to be like one about the weather: everyone complains but no one does anything about it. It is time to do something about it. And there is something we can do. All it takes is a collective act of will.
How can progressives close the "patriotic symbol" gap that conservatives have so effectively created? There is no way to take back the flag and the eagle: they have been so thoroughly "branded" right-wing that no amount of concerted effort will undo the damage. What we need is a patriotic symbol that has not been co-opted by the right, one that is not associated with policies and ideologies we reject. But one that is clearly and unabashedly patriotic. I have a suggestion.
We the People. The first words of the Constitution, in their iconic script. Simple, dignified, unassailable. We the People on bumperstickers, T-shirts, and, yes, lapel pins. A symbol not tied to a particular campaign or a particular candidate, a symbol that can be used forever. A symbol more direct and contentful even than the flag: the flag symbolizes something, but the Constitution is the thing it symbolizes. And a symbol than will never be co-opted by the right. It is all too easy to incite people to shred the Constitution while waving the flag; it would be impossible to incite people to shred the Constitution while waving the Constitution!
All it would take to implement this idea is the will to implement it. If a large group of people decide they want We the People paraphenalia, the market will respond of its own accord. (Actually, the market would have some work to do- a quick search of the tubes failed to turn up a decent, simple We the People lapel pin.) What it takes is nothing more than a collective decision, by enough people all at once, and the left can have a patriotic symbol that had not been imbued with suggestions of right-wing views.
Perhaps concern about patriotic symbolism– or symbolism in general– seems shallow. But one cannot deny that symbolism of this kind is effective. It promotes solidarity, it allows people to display their feelings and take comfort in seeing the displays of others. Back in the day, the left was very, very good at symbols: there was both the peace symbol and the peace sign; there was the use of "Ms." to proclaim a commitment to gender equality. Indeed, the most plausible explanation for why the left got out of the symbol business is because the right got so heavily into it. But this has led to unilateral disarmament on the symbolic patriotism front. We can change all that. All we have to do is decide to do it.