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.
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.