Obama shows that dismissing slimy right-wing attacks is not difficult

Going on offense against patriotism attacks, rather than responding meekly and defensively, is by far the most effective way to defeat them.

Published February 25, 2008 3:08PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

By far, the most significant pattern in how our political discourse is shaped is that the right-wing noise machine generates scurrilous, petty, personality-based innuendo about Democratic candidates, and the establishment press then mindlessly repeats it and mainstreams it. Thus, nothing was more predictable than watching the "Obamas-are-unpatriotic-subversives" slur travel in the blink of an eye from the Jack Kingstons, Fox News adolescent McCarthyites, and Bill Kristols of the world to AP, MSNBC, and CNN. That's just how the right-wing/media nexus works.

Far more notable is Barack Obama's response to these depressingly familiar attacks. In response, he's not scurrying around slapping flags all over himself or belting out the National Anthem, nor is he apologizing for not wearing lapels, nor is he defensively trying to prove that -- just like his Republican accusers -- he, too, is a patriot, honestly. He's not on the defensive at all. Instead, he's swatting away these slurs with the dismissive contempt they deserve, and then eagerly and aggressively engaging the debate on offense because he's confident, rather than insecure, about his position:

About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

"A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans' benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

"That is a debate I am very happy to have. We'll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism."

Ever since 2002 -- at least -- most national Democrats have quivered with fear the moment Republicans utter words like "patriotism" and "national security." Traumatized by the 2002 mid-term elections, George Bush's 70% approval ratings, and the media's lock-step adoration of the Commander-in-Chief, to this day they become frozen the moment such attacks are even suggested and desperately and defensively try to comply with whatever demands are made of them. Like many trauma victims, they can never break free of the terror from their past, and still live perpetually in 2002, whereby George Bush's invocation of the words "patriotism" and "terrorism" can send them into spasms of fear and submission.

Perhaps (in part) because he wasn't in Washington in 2002, Obama's response here is the opposite of all of that. He's not the slightest bit defensive. To the contrary, he went out of his way to raise numerous examples of why it is the flag-waving Republicans whose "patriotism" ought to be in doubt, if anyone's should be. Without having to do so, Obama even went and raised the issue which Republicans currently think is their big, bad weapon -- warrantless spying on Americans -- and used it against them, to argue that spying on Americans is a profound violation of core American political principles, a far more substantive test of "patriotism" than what pretty accessories one wears with one's clothes.

Obama's approach illustrates the fundamental difference between these two types responses:

* Even though I am kind of against the war and a little bit against the new FISA bill for now, I love my country and want to protect Americans, too, just like the Republicans do -- honest (the standard Democratic response); and,

* If anyone's patriotism should be considered suspect, it's those who want to send Americans off to die in a worthless and destructive war and those who want to eviscerate our basic political values by torturing, detaining people with no rights, and spying on American citizens with no warrants (the gist of Obama's response here).

Slimy accusations that one is "soft on the Terrorists" or "unpatriotic" will be effective if people see the accused, in response, nervously trying to deny the accusations, trying to run away from one's own beliefs, defensively trying to comply with the demands of the accusers in order to make the accusations go away. By contrast, the accusations will be rendered worthless if the accused stands by one's own principles and convictions and aggressively seeks out the debate, turning the accusations around on the accusers.

Most Democrats have yet to learn that lesson. Obama's response here strongly suggests that he has. Although there is still a significant chance that Democrats will ultimately give the President most if not all of what he wants on the FISA bill, perhaps their ongoing refusal to capitulate quickly even in the face of all-out GOP fear-mongering -- along with Obama's refusal to do the same with regard to these patriotism attacks -- will demonstrate that (regardless of their "real beliefs" on war and surveillance) such capitulation is not only unnecessary but completely contrary to their own political interests.

UPDATE: I'll be on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight at 6:30 p.m. EST talking about this post and related matters. Live streaming or local listings are here.

UPDATE II: FDL has created an excellent tool for protesting the heinous Associated Press article by Nedra Pickler questioning Barack Obama's patriotism, which I wrote about yesterday (item 2). The FDL tool basically enables you to create letters to the editor and op-eds for your local newspapers to complain about the journalistic atrocity AP produced.

Additionally, there is a new Daily Kos diary promoting the campaign and if any of you are Kos members, recommending the diary can help to generate significantly more attention for the letter-writing campaign. Reporters and news outlets should feel the wrath when they produce trash like the Pickler article.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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