Psssssst

. . . didja hear the inside skinny about Barack Obama? That he hates the Pledge of Allegiance and the American flag pin and, who knows, maybe America itself? That his middle name is identical to the last name of a now-dead evildoer, which maybe tells us plenty? That he dresses up like a Somalian, which might be a sign that he's some kind of foreigner with a surrender agenda?

So it goes in the noxious nexus of viral e-mails, Web videos, and loudmouthed radio - aided and abetted by certain conservative commentators and politicians. Obama hasn't even won the nomination, yet already the patriotism police seem bent on traveling the low road all the way to November. Absent factual checks and balances, they'll have you believing Obama is on the al-Qaeda payroll, sent here to infiltrate the presidency, just as Laurence Harvey did the communists' bidding in

The Manchurian Candidate

.

Obama warrants all kinds of scrutiny; legitimate questions can be raised about how he'd actually end the war, how he'd tackle the Social Security entitlement woes, how he'd pay for his ambitious domestic ideas, and whether he has the intellectual tools to trump his inexperience. But those who smear do so because they understand the potential power of visceral argument. It is so much easier to exploit people's fears and ignorance than to debate Obama's ideas directly.

Consider, for instance, the Pledge of Allegiance flap. A mystery e-mail has been making the rounds, featuring a Time magazine photo that shows Obama at an Iowa event last September with his fingers entwined at waist level, supposedly during the recitation of the pledge. The e-mail stated: "He refused to not only put his hand on his heart during the pledge, but refused to say the pledge . . . how in hell can a man like this expect to be our next Commander-in-Chief?"

This, in turn, is sparking outrage on the right. The other day, commentator Linda Chavez huffed: "You can't imagine conservatives refusing to fly the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance." Georgia Republican congressman Jack Kingston declared on HBO's

Real Time With Bill Maher

the other night that "the guy would not say the Pledge of Allegiance . . . that is disturbing to Americans." Therefore, Kingston asked, with respect to Obama and his spouse: "Where do they stand on America?"

But the e-mail is a lie, and these people are perpetuating the lie. It turns out - and this was reported long ago - that the photo was snapped during the playing of the national anthem, not during the pledge. (By the way, it's amusing that conservatives are so hung up about the pledge, given its actual pedigree. It was authored in 1892 by a prominent American socialist, Francis Bellamy, who lectured widely on the evils of capitalism and conceived the pledge as a socialist credo, especially the words "with liberty and justice for all.")

Equally specious is the outcry about Obama's decision not to fly the flag on his suit jacket. William Kristol brought it up again in his Feb. 25 New York Times column. As he sees it, Obama is insulting everybody who chooses to wear a flag pin. Kingston, the congressman, was on MSNBC a few nights ago, stirring the pot, saying that "everybody wears them," yet "here's a guy that doesn't want to do it."

This all began last October, after a TV reporter in Iowa filed a report that Obama was pinless. It turned out Obama had been pinless for years, ever since the start of the Iraq war. On the stump in Iowa, he explained why: "You start noticing people wearing a flag pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with the resources they need. . . . I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart."

In other words, Obama was insisting that true patriotism should be about substance, not symbols. At least he articulated a reason. As I well recall, while watching a Republican presidential debate last autumn, seven of the eight candidates did not wear flag pins. I just cruised John McCain's campaign Web site. In the official photos, he is not wearing a flag pin. Then I looked at Kingston again on MSNBC, the guy who says that "everybody" wears the pin. He isn't wearing one, either.

Granted, none of these critics has "Hussein" for a middle name, so surely that's an effective way to suggest that Obama is too foreign to be president - which is why Bill Cunningham, the talk-radio host who warmed a crowd for McCain on Feb. 26, chanted the name repeatedly, and why the Tennessee Republican Party dropped the H-word in a news release, explaining later that "we have a duty to inform the Republican base."

Apparently, this duty did not include informing the Republican base that "Hussein" is actually a common name in many parts of the world (it typically means "good and handsome one") - and that in fact one of America's strongest Middle Eastern allies, a peacemaker who forged a historic pact with Israel, was the late King Hussein of Jordan. But enlightening the base would require rudimentary knowledge of, and respect for, the cultures beyond our borders.

And that's precisely the opposite of what the smear practitioners intend. Ignorance is their fuel. By depicting Obama in ceremonial Somali garb (a 2006 photo posted on the "Drudge Report"); by running anonymous quotes, supposedly from a "senior Pentagon official," about how Obama's ascension would be "the final victory" for "the Arab street" (news story in the Washington Times); and by writing, more politely, about how Obama's priorities are really "post-nationalist" and "post-American" (the National Review), the goal is to insinuate that a Trojan Horse has breached the castle walls, with plans to lead us to ruin.

(Drudge said the photo came from a Clinton staffer, but this has never been confirmed, and Republican bloggers and operatives have been quite pleased to disseminate it.)

John McCain won't say such things, of course. If Obama wins the nomination, McCain will hew to the high road and merely suggest with great civility that his young rival would be a risky choice in a dangerous world. He will occasionally denounce the low-road travelers, just as he rebuked Cunningham, but he will not be able to muzzle them. It would be truly ironic if McCain, whose first candidacy eight years ago was wrecked by right-wing smears, managed to triumph with their assistance in 2008.

The American Debate:

William Kristol column on Obama's flag pin:

http://go.philly.com/kristol

Jack Kingston on "Real Time With Bill Maher":

http://go.philly.com/kingston