Book World: Review of ‘Capture the Flag' by Woden Teachout

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By Susan Jacoby
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 4, 2009


A Political History of American Patriotism

By Woden Teachout

Basic. 266 pp. $26.95

Americans tend to assume that familiar patriotic symbols and rituals, like the flag and the pledge of allegiance, have always meant what they mean today. In "Capture the Flag," a lively portrait of the mutable and multiple meanings of our most cherished and contested national emblem, Woden Teachout argues convincingly that patriotic symbols -- like patriotism itself -- have always meant different things to different Americans.

A professor at Union Institute and University, an online higher-education program, Teachout uses competing claims to the flag to trace the complicated relationship between American ideals of humanitarian patriotism, rooted in Enlightenment values of individual liberty and political equality, and nationalist patriotism, based on loyalty to a nation-state and emphasis on national security.

Although the flag was not the most prominent national symbol before the Civil War, it was used both by nativists and immigrants during the 1840s, which saw the rise of the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party.

The Civil War was the turning point in the rise of the flag as a symbol of both national unity and bitter division. The lowering of the American flag at Fort Sumter, after the Southern attack that ushered in the war, cemented the divide between the Confederacy and the Union. In the occupied postbellum South, the return of the national flag, accompanied by prohibition of public display of Confederate flags, provided equally powerful evidence of the secessionists' defeat.

Yet, as the author notes, the flag also partook of humanitarian patriotism. The pledge of allegiance, intended to promote assimilation of immigrants, was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist, and it simply read: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." Teachout fails to follow up and make the important point that the phrase "under God" was added to the pledge only in 1954. Regrettably, the author does not deal at any length with the conflation of religion, patriotism and flag worship during the McCarthy era and in recent years.

In an era of bloated books that seem designed to justify their hardcover price tags (rather like too-large portions in restaurants), it may seem churlish to criticize a history for brevity. But Teachout is in too much of a hurry when she gets to the 20th century. She provides an incisive account of the outraged reaction of many working-class Americans to flag burnings by anti-Vietnam War protesters but skips over World War II almost entirely.

The book's most glaring omission involves one of the most important civil liberties cases in American history, the 1943 Supreme Court decision West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The court reversed an earlier decision that had upheld the right of schools to require Jehovah's Witnesses -- whose religion forbids saluting any secular symbols -- to recite the pledge of allegiance. In Justice Robert H. Jackson's memorable words, "If there is any fixed star in our constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

This decision perfectly embodied the melding of humanitarian patriotism and nationalist patriotism, which Teachout discusses in her concluding remarks about the post-9/11 era and the 2008 presidential campaign. She sees Barack Obama's ability to elucidate both humanitarian and nationalist patriotism as a major political strength.

The author may well be right in her view of the president as a publicist in chief for both patriotic traditions. But her optimistic conclusion does not explain why Obama, faced with harsh criticism during his early primary campaign for failing to wear a flag lapel pin, now wears a flag pin on every public occasion. The founders, as "Capture the Flag" eloquently reminds us, didn't feel obliged to wear their patriotism on their lapels.

Jacoby is the author of "The Age of American Unreason" and "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History."

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