Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- The much ado about Barack Obama's decision not to wear an American flag lapel pin was, well, symbolic.

To follow the debate that followed the headline that followed the nonstory about a dated decision is to witness where acute partisanship has led us. From the hue and cry on the right, you'd have thought Obama had flushed a Bible down the toilet.

What Obama did might have escaped anyone's notice but for what he said when a reporter in Iowa recently asked him about the missing pin. In the Age of Public Virtue, it is apparently essential that citizens flaunt their patriotism; crucial if they're running for public office.

Obama replied that he had worn a flag pin immediately after 9/11, but removed it when he felt it had become a substitute for "true patriotism." He said he preferred to demonstrate his allegiance to the US of A by "speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security" and by trying "to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

One could argue that Obama didn't say exactly the right thing, politically. When campaigning for president, it's probably best not to insult all those nice Iowans who have flagpoles in their front yards and flag pins in their lapels.

On the other hand, most honest brokers know exactly what he meant, and he's not wrong. Overused symbols lose their meaning.

There was a time not long ago when displaying one's political or religious affiliations -- as well as one's affections -- was considered seriously bad form. Today it's bad form to be private, and votes swing on which candidate lays on the best kiss.

From crucifix necklaces and fish lapel pins that declare "I'm a Christian" to colored rubber wristbands that convey solidarity with cancer victims and environmentalists, we've become a nation of exhibitionist symbolists.

Competitive caring is the new national sport in which the victor is judged not by acts of charity, but by the number of bracelets stacked on his wrists. We wear stickers after we vote or give blood -- and plaster yellow ribbons on our SUVs -- lest anyone doubt we support our troops.

By making symbols fashionable, we've ratified boasting as an act of redemption and elevated empathy to an existential conceit. I care, therefore I am. I care more than you do, therefore I am more than you are.

I wear this lapel pin, therefore, my country 'tis of me, not thee.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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