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The Collective
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Eugene Volokh has a column in today’s WSJ wherein he equates the wearing of a flag lapel pin to saying “I love you” to one’s wife:

Wearing a flag pin is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument, just as “I love you” is not supposed to be an explanation or an argument. It’s supposed to be a traditional statement of affection, powerful because it’s cliché.

Funny, while I suppose that technically speaking “I love you” is a cliché. However, it seems to me that the issue is very much one of intent. If I say “I love you” to my wife only because I have to, and yet I do not mean it, then that is problematic. However, that’s not why I say it, so to me personally, it is a sincere act, washing from it its clichéd status, at least within my personal realm. By the say token, if one wears a flag pin out of true desire to do so, fine. However, if one wears it because one feels one has to do so, it truly is a cliché.

Nevertheless, Volokh writes:

Yet if you used to say this and then you stopped, the symbolic message is pretty powerful. And that’s true even though many people say “I love you” without meaning it (just as there are some who wear the flag pin but are just opportunists, not patriots). Even if this abuse of the phrase weakens its symbolism, an outright renunciation of the phrase retains its symbolism just fine.

Look, I understand that part of the reason that Obama stopped wearing the pin (or, at least, making public statements as involved as he about not wearing it) was as much about PR as anything else. However, the notions a) that there is great symbolism in this specific act, and b) that the flag pin is the same as habitually proclaiming one’s love for one’s wife are both ridiculous.

While one may take issue with the more pompous elements of Obama’s explanation for not wearing the pin, as I noted before, I, too, got to the point where it seemed that wearing a flag pin post-9/11 had ranged into an empty gesture. Some actions are more appropriate and more heartfelt at specific moments in time. Just because one engages in a specific action over a specific span of time does not mean that one has to continue, in perpetuity the given action. Further, one can love one’s country without wearing a lapel pin, for crying out loud.

On the second point, while wearing a flag pin can be seen to be a statement of affection for one’s country, it is very much an abstract one. However, a daily (or whatever) affirmation of affection for one’s spouse is a wholly different behavior. Unlike the choice to wear a flag pin after an attack, one suspect that one is either the type of person who expresses frequent affection or one is not. As such, yes, if my wife, who frequently tells me she loves me stopped telling me such all of a sudden, I would wonder what was going on. But that is about a relationship between two individuals that has its own grammar and language, not a fashion choice concerning one’s lapel. For one thing, the country won’t wonder if I have stopped loving it should I fail to wear a pin or forget to fly my flag on the 4th of July. For that matter, are we to say that anyone who started wearing a flag pin, flew the flag, or put a flag sticker on their car after 9/11 has to, in perpetuity, continue to do so lest they end up making a symbolic gesture of rejection?

Quite frankly I find Volohk’s analogy to be rather odd.

Volokh concludes:

The American people want a president who loves their country and who expresses that love, at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. For better or worse, a President Spock won’t get elected. Candidate Obama should know that.

First off, Spock would be ineligible to be President of the United States being a Vulcan and all, and as a constitutional scholar, Professor Volokh ought to know that. Second, while I can see the importance of emotion and passion, a little more cold logic in the White House wouldn’t hurt my feelings. Third, is the only way that Barack Obama can be seen to be loving his country on an emotional level be to wear a pin?

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Filed under: US Politics | |

2 Comments »

  1. I’m not buying Volokh’s parallel.

    I say “I love you” to my wife regularly. I never, however, walk around with a sign saying “I love [my wife].” I suppose some do. I think most of us do not.

    That is, one is a (mostly) private act. The other is an entirely public act.

    I can sincerely (or not) love my wife without having to wear a pin or other public sign of it. So with my country. I can be a patriot (or not), but my having a pin (or not) really does not have much bearing on the matter. Having a pin does imply some sort of need for affirmation that one is a “patriot.”

    And it is my personal experience that actual acts of love for one’s country-and perhaps also for one’s spouse-are not all that well correlated with one’s public display of same.

    Comment by MSS — Wednesday, October 10, 2007 @ 5:17 pm

  2. First off, Spock would not be ineligible to be President of the United States being a Vulcan and all, and as a constitutional scholar, Professor Volokh ought to know that. Second, while I can see the importance of emotion and passion, a little more cold logic in the White House wouldn’t hurt my feelings. Third, is the only way that Barack Obama can be seen to be loving his country on an emotional level be to wear a pin?

    You are right on here. Where in the world does Volokh get this crap. His framing is bizarre.

    Action and results are what matters.

    Remember how this whole pin debate started: Obama was asked by a REPORTER why he didn’t wear the pin.

    He would have been much better off answering the question thusly with a high degree of indignation: “We have 150,000 troops bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq; we have millions of people with inadequate health insurance; we have interstate highways that are collapsing. And you are asking me about whether or not I am wearing a pin? I am here to discuss my plans and policies for making the country better, not to talk about how I dress.”

    Instead of his rather wishy-washy answer, this would have given him credibility with both the “base” as well as with many undecided centrists who see the media as completely inane and pandering.

    Unfortunately, Obama caved and gave the Freedom crowd some ammo to use against him. Of course, if he had answered in the way that I suggested, nobody would have ever known about the whole incident.

    Comment by Ratoe — Wednesday, October 10, 2007 @ 8:22 pm

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