Obviously, I'm a fan of substantive acts of patriotism. But I'd be eager to hear an intellectually serious defense of symbolic patriotism. This is worth discussing. And wouldn't it be nice if we could have that discussion without anyone actually charging that people whose patriotism takes a different form than theirs are not actually patriotic at all?To be honest, I don't think the lapel pin pseudo-controversy even rises to the level of symbolism. Rather, it's just the latest example of the effluvium that wafts over our public discourse when you combine conservative cynicism with press corps ennui. To call it symbolism is to give genuine symbolism short shrift.
That said, do we really need an "intellectually serious defense" of symbolism of any kind, patriotic or otherwise? We're human beings, after all, not East African great apes, and symbolism is fundamental to our existence. We liberals use symbolism constantly think AIDS quilts, breast cancer ribbons, and green Emmy awards. Memorable photographs are powerful symbols, like this one, this one, and this one. Great symbolism (the Boston tea party) helps to change history; bad symbolism (cardigan sweaters) provokes derision.
Good symbols turn abstract ideas into concrete action. They hardly need any defense. In fact, as our messaging gurus have been telling us so insistently lately, we liberals really ought to get better at using them. Great causes are won and lost on appeals to emotion and values, and symbols of all kinds metaphors, images, taglines, emblems, what have you are an ancient and powerful way to tap into that.
Patriotism is no different, and symbolic patriotism can be as potent a unifying force as any other kind of symbolism. It's good to the extent that it appeals to the better angels of our nature and bad to the extent that it appeals to mere jingoism. The fact that it's been mostly the latter in recent years is the problem, not the symbolism itself.