Kathleen Parker

But of course that ain't necessarily so. Sometimes those most publicly virtuous are the least. Some "values" conservatives have wide stances, for instance. Some greenies travel to global warming conferences in private jets. Some politicians wear flag pins just because.

Hypocrisy isn't inevitable, but neither is the wearing of symbols a guarantee of sincerity.

There's an obsessive-compulsive component to this ritualized belonging that is tied to another characteristic of our age -- anxiety. We find relief by forming identity groups around what we fear. We create symbols and rituals as ways of organizing that anxiety and exercising control over the thing that controls us.

Buy a pink toaster and maybe breast cancer won't get us. Affix a fish emblem to our cars and maybe Jesus will get us home safely. Valium with adhesive backing.

Consciously, we know it's "just" a symbol, but symbols have power by virtue of their ability to reach the unconscious -- our primitive selves -- and to trigger an emotional response. Our little lizard brains get upset and we react viscerally when others disrespect our cherished symbols.

That may explain why Obama's comment caused such a stir. The American flag doesn't just stand for patriotism. It stands for an idea and calls up an entire landscape of American memory.

It also pays silent homage to all who came before, those American forefathers who spilled their blood so that a Barack Obama -- biracial son of an American mother and a Kenyan father -- someday could run for president of the greatest nation man ever conceived.

That's a heap o' wallop packed in a cheap trinket.

Wearing one wouldn't necessarily make Obama a better patriot, but it might make him a better politician.

Kathleen Parker

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