- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

CAPTURE THE FLAG: A POLITICAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN PATRIOTISM
By Woden Teachout
Basic Books, $26.95, 266 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAUDE MARX

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama caused an uproar last year when he refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. It was another reminder of Old Glory’s potency as a symbol.

The flag has played many different roles throughout history and fights over which political views are most patriotic have been some of the country’s nastiest.

In “Capture the Flag: a Political History of American Patriotism,” Woden Teachout discusses key events through the prism of how different groups used the flag and evoked patriotism to make their case.

“The flag is not powerful in spite of its ambiguity, it is powerful because of its ambiguity,” she writes.

During much of the book, Ms. Teachout is a dispassionate observer who summarizes events and synthesizes disparate material. Other times, however, she allows her opinions to shine through and cuts Democrats and progressives more slack than she does Republicans and conservatives. That approach helps her corroborate her thesis that the best kind of patriotism is the humanitarian variety that emphasizes liberty, egalitarianism and respect for the individual.

She appears to be an ideological soul mate of English author Samuel Johnson, who famously stated in 1775 that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Johnson’s biographer James Boswell (whose book is often ranked as one of the most significant biographies in history) interpreted the statement as an indictment of false patriotism, not as others have argued, of all patriotism.

Ms. Teachout, a professor of graduate studies at Union Institute and University in Vermont, argues that during the 1840s, those groups who crafted a view of patriotism based on ethnicity and anti-immigrant views turned the flag into a “polarizing icon.”

She’s right about the nativists taking patriotism to the extreme. However, by often highlighting the excesses of her ideological adversaries, she makes the mistake of trying to show how the exception proves the rule and weakens an otherwise strong argument.

It is hard, however, to stay angry at Ms. Teachout for too long because of the valuable service she performs by highlighting historical events and eras that often get overlooked. While many trees have been felled to produce books about the Founding Fathers and the Civil War (both subjects covered in this book), she also spends a great deal of time on events such as the 1896 presidential campaign and the use of the flag to suppress dissent during World War I.

Think Lee Atwater and Karl Rove started the practice of wrapping GOP presidential candidates in the flag? Hardly. During William McKinley’s successful presidential campaign in 1896, Mark Hanna, one of the country’s best known political bosses, also used the flag. A “clever use of flag symbolism effectively appropriated the banner as an emblem not only of the nation but also of the Republican Party,” she writes. “The many elaborate public celebrations [of the flag] forged a visual link between American patriotism and the Republican agenda.”

She takes a more favorable view of the use of patriotism and the flag by civil rights supporters.

“Activists began to see the flag as an untapped source of strength,” she wrote. “Protesters realized that the flag had the potential to exude their meaning, their sense of possibility, their American dream. After so many years of belonging to white Americans, it could be their flag.”

The civil rights movement was notable because Democrats (with notable exceptions such as FDR and JFK) have often had trouble finding a way to make patriotic appeals that resonate with citizens. Some Democratic candidates have felt uncomfortable tying themselves to the flag because they think it is unsophisticated.

Ms. Teachout thinks that liberals would do well to follow the approach laid out by Mr. Obama in his victory speech on election night. He called for a new approach to expressing patriotic sentiments when he called for “a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”

While it’s not clear how well that sentiment will appeal to Americans in the long run, Ms. Teachout’s analysis will help people understand all kinds of patriotism in their broader context.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, has written extensively about politics and history.

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