Dip, Bow, or Stand Tall

The Obama campaign is airing television commercials here in New York.  This is extraordinary because in New York Obama leads Romney by 24 points and the state has not favored a Republican presidential candidate since the Reagan landslide of 1984.  But I want to leave that aside and discuss the content of the Obama commercial with the Olympic games in mind.

In the well-done television advertisement, Obama plainly states that there are two starkly different visions of America.  I could not agree more.  (Okay, it is a hilarious commercial wherein the President attempts to run on his record of fiscal responsibility and fighting for the middle class, while ignoring his one true accomplishment – Obamacare – and blaming economic woes on “the people who got us into this mess,” but this too is beside my point.)  The more subtle and deeper question is: what are the two visions of America to which Obama refers?

There is a little known American Olympic tradition.  It is the kind that makes conservatives smile and embarrasses the liberal elite.  During the parade of nations that occurs in the opening ceremonies of an Olympic games the United States flag bearer does not dip the flag when passing the review stand of the host nations leaders.  America is alone in this insolence.

To the left this lack of obeisance is sadly characteristic of uncouth and jingoistic America.  The left disapproves of the national bravado because it may be insulting to foreign nations, and merely demonstrates to the world that the United States does not see itself as among a community of equals.  Because America will not dip its flag we show our pride, and probably, our ignorance.  Speaking on behalf of conservatives I offer the following reply to these charges, “yup.”

The American flag represents America, that is, it represents Americans.  The stars and stripes is the de facto stand-in for the free people who are fortunate enough to call the United States their home.  Critically, the freedom and blessings that are the birthright of every American are not bestowed by the American government, rather, liberty is a gift from God – it says so right in our founding documents and the flag symbolizes all of this, thus the pledge of allegiance we all utter before the school day or a ball game.

To dip that symbol, to offer up a flag curtsy, is thus an act with meaning.

The leaders of a foreign nation may or may not stand representative of their people.  In the case of free peoples, leaders are men and women of no special priviledge except the opportunity to represent the people of their nation.  This is the case with the American President.  Where the people are not free the leader no chosen cipher for the whole, but a man or woman who has claimed some greater authority than that offered by peers.  To the American mind such a claim to authority is bogus.  It is either a lie, a usurpation, or blasphemy.

Therefore, when peer meets peer, no one bows, as it is in American culture, all are equal in the eyes of the law and of heaven.  There is no need to curtsy before equals.  Likewise, the flag of a free people should never dip to an illegitimate ruler as they are by definition inferior and contrary to our ideals.  We acknowledge the divine right of no monarch and never the authoritarian control of a cleric, general, or demagogue.

At rare times, other nations have followed the American refusal to dip the flag before the leader of the host nation (according to reports only Bulgaria, Iceland, and India joined American refusal to dip before the German Chancellor – a short fellow with an odd mustache – in 1936.)  Importantly, America will not dip the flag before its own leaders when the Olympics are held in the states; not in 1984 when President Reagan attended, nor in 2002 when the U.S. Olympic Committee lead by Mitt Romney maintained the practice.  This is consistent and appropriate.

I fear the “different vision” of Barack Obama contrasts directly with this American Olympic tradition.

At home and abroad President Obama has bowed before other world leaders including, Mexican President Calderone, Communist Chinese Premier Jiabao, Communist Chinese General Secretary Jintao, Saudi King Abdullah, Japanese Emperor Akihito, and the Indonesian Head of State Yudhoyono.  Defenders of Obama suggest that this “bowing” is symbolic only of humility, and willingness to abide by the prevailing protocol among the community of nations.  Perhaps. Though Obama has notably not bowed to either the democratically elected Israeli leader Netenyahu, nor the benign monarch Queen Elizabeth II.

The man who promised “change” in 2008, is again campaigning.  This time change is not mentioned, but the concept is replaced by the slogan “forward,” toward his self-professed “different vision” for the United States of America.  Mr. Obama is right.  Two visions of what is “America” are available for our choice.  There will be countless policy choices and a confusing array of charges and counter charges, but the simple use of symbols should be more than enough to illuminate the underlying premise of the two choices: An America that is just another country, or an America that is exceptional.

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