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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Flag Pin Patriotism: Is This All That's Left?

Flag Pin Patriotism: Is This All That's Left?
Image © Austin Cline
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America's hyper-patriotism, especially in the context of politics and political campaigns, is already disturbing enough in how it threatens to undermine discussions about real issues and real patriotism, but the people responsible for it are determined to make things worse through a excessive focus on mere symbols of hyper-patriotism. It's thus no longer enough to emphatically profess that you love America in every other sentence: unless you're doing it while wearing a tiny flag pin, your patriotism must be questioned or even rejected.

Why is there so much emphasis on professions of patriotism in the first place? To get an idea of what I'm talking about, just take a look around at the signs used by political candidates. Can you find even one official sign, button, or poster that doesn't use the colors red, white, and blue — preferably arranged in a way to remind viewers of the American flag? This wouldn't make any sense in a rational, adult society.

This sort of behavior isn't the norm. Political parties in Germany, for example, have their own signature colors and use them in their advertising and propaganda materials. No one feels any need to emblazon the German flag all over their posters, and I don't think you'll find such behavior in other European nations. No one questions the general patriotic feelings of political candidates — they differ on what they think is best for their country, not in wanting the best for their country.

Americans, though, seem to think that the patriotism of a candidate might be a real question. Do Americans have any reason to fear that people running for public office aren't really patriotic? Does anyone truly imagine that an anti-American subversive would have any trouble putting the flag on a campaign poster and repeating incantations to American patriotic values?

The manufactured controversies over flag pins is part of the same problem, but it takes matters a step further because it fetishizes the pin itself over and above the already superficial colors and imagery designed to invoke feelings of patriotism. I could understand a little if they were a long-standing tradition, but they only came to the fore in the aftermath of September 11. Now, no matter how much one says they are patriotic, and no matter how unsubtle the patriotic appeals are in campaign materials, the absence of tiny piece of metal made in China suddenly becomes the most important sign of whether a candidate is really patriotic or not.

That's what it is, a sign — or perhaps I should say it's a simulacra. In his book Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argued that a new reality has been created in modern society through the objects, signs, and models we create for ourselves. These models that are supposed to be based on reality end up determining our perception of reality — until, at some point, we no longer see reality for what it is and instead only end up seeing the simulacra and simulations we have manufactured for ourselves. Modern society is not merely artificial, because artificiality requires some conception of reality which we can measure things against. Instead, the very boundaries between artificial and real have collapsed entirely.

Baudrillard argues that there are four stages in the development of simulacra, or signs. First is the era of the real, in which there is nothing but originals — no copies, models, simulations, or signs. Second is the "first order" of simulacra, during which images and signs are created, but they are clearly copies and everyone is fully conscious of the fact that they are simply place-holders for the real. Third is the "second order" of simulacra, during which the boundaries begin to crack because the mass production of perfect copies undermines people's ability to differentiate between originals and copies. There remains a belief, however, that access to the real or original is still possible.

Finally, there is the "third order" of simulacra, which Baudrillard sees in the current era, during which representations of reality precede and overwhelm anything that is real. No one even tries to distinguish between artifice and reality because the artifice has become more than good enough, assuming that people even remember that there was a real or original prior to the model. In this stage, those who control the production of simulacra also therefore control people's reality — not just their perception of reality, but reality itself because the distinction between simulacra and reality just doesn't exist anymore.

A similar progression can arguably be traced through American politics. At first, no one bothers to profess patriotism because it's simply assumed — we're all in this together, right? Later, people start using signs and symbols to send the message that they are patriotic as quickly and efficiently as possible. No one fails to recognize, though, these signs and symbols are merely placeholders for genuine patriotism and are not patriotic in and of themselves.

Over time, the signs and symbols of patriotism proliferate to the point where it's no longer possible to do without them, otherwise one stands out and may be marked as unpatriotic. As a consequence, it's impossible to tell through looking at the signs who really is patriotic or not — but many believe the presence of genuine patriotism might be determined through a critical analysis of a candidate's words and actions. The reality of patriotism is buried under the mounds of simulacra, we just have to look hard enough.

Finally, in the current age, the signs, simulacra, and symbols of patriotism are all that's left as far as many people are concerned. Whether there might be something real and genuine in a candidate no longer matters and no one asks. Instead, all they ask about is the presence of the correct simulacra — like flag pins — because the boundaries between the artifice of flag pins and the reality of genuine love of country have collapsed. Flag pins have become patriotic in and of themselves. Flag pins are new reality of patriotism: either you have one or you don't, and nothing else matters.

Baudrillard has been justifiably criticized for hyperbolic language in trying to argue that we exist in nothing but a sea of signs lacking any references to anything that might still be considered real, but it's hard not to think that Baudrillard's ideas can find their most significant fulfillment in the context of American politics. Before Nash McCabe's question was asked during the Democratic debate, perhaps she should have been asked what a flag pin really means in the first place? Does she think that the presence of a flag pin points to some underlying, genuine reality, and if so, what is it? Does she care? Indeed, how many people really care anymore? Certainly not our so-called "Fourth Estate" over at ABC, given the simulacra of real questions they asked.

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