Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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She’s Right!

Kathleen Parker nails it in this article about the new "exhibitionist" symbolism that seems to have gripped the country. Obama’s recent flap over not wearing an American flag lapel pin is part of this--but did, she argues, exhibit a kind of tone-deafness that--if it did not show him to be less patriotic than others--at least demonstrated that he did not care about insulting people. But I absolutely agree with her about those rubber-band bracelets and the pink breast-cancer slippers I saw for sale in the supermarket (!?) yesterday. Why do we do this kind of stuff? Parker has some thoughts . . .

Discussions - 19 Comments

I do not think she is right. People have always worn or exhibited symbols as personal statements of political or religious affiliation, or especially as talismans. This may have fallen out of favor at some point, but I cannot think of any such point in my lifetime. My grandfather, and this would have forty years ago and more, always wore an enameled pin shaped like an elephant with red, white and blue stripes on it. Buried somewhere around here, I probably still have a little gold metal pin with tiny feet on it given to me in about 1979. I did not wear that to keep babies away, either. From bumper stickers to political party or candidate buttons to crosses or badges indicating membership in clubs or organizations, people have always kept such things.

She was right about Obama possibly offending people who sport such things regularly.

I'm not sure either that this exhibitionist symbolosim is all that new but it may have become more promiscuous recently; also, sporting an american flag might be of a different order than other "party affiliations". Still, there is something very American about it all--on the one hand we're loudly egalitarian but on the other deeply meritocratic; a well intentioned egalitarian support for the downtrodden can easily transform itself into a kind of virtue contest. I've seen some folks at the local grocery store wearing several of those rubber bracelets on both wrists as if they're afraid to leave out someone. (I would certainly pony up a dollar for a bracelet that supported disenfranchised gnostic Heideggerian existentialists. Maybe two.)

What color would you assign to the disenfranchised gnostic Heideggerian existentialists? I see the bracelets and never know what they are supposed to celebrate. There are just too many of them to keep track. Maybe "celebrate" is the wrong word as so many of them are to show support for some kind of victim.

Yes, sporting an American flag is different than exhibiting one's "party affiliation." Yet, as to flags, I know many Italian-Americans who wear little Italian flags and would not mean that they were other than allegiant Americans.

No, indeed, Kate. We Italian-Americans are fiercely proud, as you point out, of our heritage as Americans. It took a lot of hard work, education, and patriotic service to overcome stereotypes and nativism, and be considered mainstream Americans.

Honk if you remember David Riesman.

No. I am looking him up online. I'll never tell my students, but the clearest explanation I am finding is on Wikipedia. Everyone else presumes prior knowledge. I remember my dad using the terms "inner-directed" and "outer-directed" in conversation when I was young.

OK, Fund, please explain how Reisman applies. I was going to look back in history, as I was thinking about saint's medals, coats of arms, guild symbols, Medici bees and such things. This guy seems to have written in strictly American terms, by what I am reading.

I saw one of those ribbons on a car yesterday, that read

"Support Strippers"...I don't think they were talking about the fish...;)

I agree with you Kate...Kathleen Parker and Obama are simply making an argument that has a lot of natural appeal to the skeptic center. Just because you wear a jersey doesn't make you a sports fan...there is a lot of room in general to presume that politicians are duplicitous...that people such as Brad Pitt have ulterior motives. The media is always making these arguements because they sell...nobody really trusts anyone anymore...and if you are a democrat you probably will agree that Obama's answer is excellent and a sign of his virtue and disgust with wagging the dog symbolism...if you are a republican or otherwise skeptical you will be warry of how he is employing a skeptical narrative...really there is no limit to how skeptical one can be. But enough with the skepticism already...even David Hume wasn't this skeptical. I believe that Obama is somewhat sincere, eventhough I don't agree with him. I also believe that a lot of people are sincere. This goes back to the great political philosopher Brad Pitt...he said look I don't have to have an ulterior a human being I am moved by this plight. I think a lot of people that bother to take the time to wear a donkey or an elephant are sincere...ditto the american flag...and ditto for almost everything else that might fall under the rubric of "exhibitionist symbolism". People wear a WWJD bracelet with the hopes that when faced with temptation they will look down and remind themselves of the values they hold. People wear aids or cancer bracelets in order to provoke conversations...and remind themselves of the blessings of good health. This exhibitionist symbolism may be derrided fashionably by the punditry and the folks who write tabloids always looking to expose the worst in man...but I say the hell with tabloids and punditry in general. If someone displays "exhibitionist symbolism" I assume they mean it. If I pull up near a mother with a minivan with a Jesus Loves you sticker...I know where she stands. If I see a pickup truck emblazoned with Cowboys stickers I know I can fire him up by Praising the Redskins. I love exhibitionist symbolism, it gives me a clue about other peoples allegiances and priorities, and in general I am willing to take their word for it. When I see a truck emblazoned with Marine Corps and NRA stickers I know the fella inside doesn't care much for the Brady Bill...I also figure he might be packing heat. Exibitionist symbolism is is a way of saying this is what I believe and stand for...this is what I find interesting...these are my priorities. The fact that fair weather fans exist doesn't really ruin the party, you can usually spot the charlatans(they are the ones running for office?...but this is unfair:)


Riesman described a trend that he tied to population curves and the emerging existence of a leisure society.

As I recall (and it was a while ago) he described the modal American "type" as going from a tradition-directed type, to an inner-directed, to an outer-directed type.

The first shift is epitomized in "Fiddler On the Roof," where tradition and "shame" social mechanisms for behavior control are replaced by individualistic guilt mechanisms. I think Riesman used the analogy of the personal gyroscope.

But, the problem with the inner direction is that we fail to anticipate well, when we are focused on our own gyroscope, because most events originate from beyond our personal space.

So, Riesman half-observed and half-predicted a second shift from inner-direction to outer direction. We now need cues and prompts, approval and balance provided externally from other individuals. Guilt is replaced by anxiety, and the gyroscope is replaced by radar, casting far and wide for potential disturbance.

Instead of assessing information on its merits, as the inner-directed type might have, we must pass judgment long before the information gets close enough to do us harm, or to discover and expose our own state of flux. The best way to do this is via taste management. We wear our taste on our sleeve, and provide each other with long distance cues, facilitating flash judgments without the necessary contact and interpersonal exchange.

Our clothing labels are turned outside, our automobile makes are writ large across the visor, or the rear bumper. Our party labels say it all. We need not bother with those who have declared themselves as X, while we wear the Y hats. It saves a lot of time, thought, and dangerous personal contact. but, like a face seen at long distance, it both projects an image and hides a reality. If Riesman was right, that reality is a great deal of anxiety.

I doubt that Riesman would have been surprised by Facebook, Myspace, or "Second Life."

But Fung pay attention to the ontological(normative) premises of the narrative you are crafting. The words "flash judgement" written in this context: "We wear our taste on our sleeve, and provide each other with long distance cues, facilitating flash judgments without the necessary contact and interpersonal exchange." -Implies that this is not a good thing.

I should ask why isn't flash judgement a good thing? If someone is giving us information about themselves...then why not use this information?

The question is what sorts of flash judgements can we make on the basis of "exhibitionist symbolism"?

My view is that one can make all sorts of accurate judgements on the basis of appearance. This is the opinion of Joe Navarro an FBI special agent turned poker consultant. It is also the view of numerous Psychologists.

Are you argueing that flash judgements are impossible? That Non-Verbal behavior is irrelevant?

Indeed Obama's argument is one that we already understand. The political decision to wear a flag pin or not wear one is a calculation of the Neocortex...this is the part of the brain that can lie...I would assume that a lot of appearance decisions by people are a result of the Neocortex...Therefore they are suceptible to being duplicious...but in most cases what people voluntarily claim to be important to them via "exhibitionist symbolism" is not a is sincere. The question is how one could ever gauge the allegiance of a politician who is not beyond using "exihibitionist symbolism" to gain points. Well one couldn't necessarily...unless one interogates them FBI style looking for lymbic "tells". I am not so skeptical of everyday people that I would assume that all forms of "exhibitionist symbolism" are a trap. On the contrary I find that most of the time "exhibitionist symbolism" tells me something that is true and usefull about them.

So I would agree with pshycologists that outward apperances are often dictated by the neocortex and are thus directed towards what other people want us to believe about them...but I would say that just because the neocortex is the cunning does not follow that it cannot also be the sincere other words sometimes what people want us to believe about them is congruent with what is important to them. Of course if you really want to know if that guy in the Cowboys Jersey is a fan go up to him on monday and ask him about the game...if he begins exhibiting lymbic responses that demonstrate that he is uncomfortable with the question...that he didn't watch the game...then you may assume that he is wearing the jersey for a different function.

What do you think of this comment Fung: "Our little lizard brains get upset and we react viscerally when others disrespect our cherished symbols." First of all the way I understand things this is false. It is our mammalian or limbic brain that is emotional and reactive. So she should have said our lymbic system reacts viscerally when others disrespect our cherished symbols...but this would not evoke the same sort of visceral reaction since what we think of when we think of snake like...deception...this is the train of thought she wanted us to take...I suppose this might be good writting but it is deceitful. Her Neocortex is playing fast and loose. In point of fact it is the neocortex that is the portion of the triune brain that is capable of deception. The mammalian brain or the lymbic system is actually honest.

Her entire article angers me the more I think of it. My neocortex is no doubt making a mountain out of a mole hill...and no doubt my lymbic brain is aiding me.

"On the other hand, most honest brokers know exactly what he meant, and he's not wrong. Overused symbols lose their meaning." This is simply partially true...Coca Cola can go from a brand to simply being Coke...another word for pop or soda(depending on where you are from) But overused symbols also gain meaning...She aludes to this when she says of the american flag "It stands for an idea and calls up an entire landscape of American memory." The more a symbol is used the more it comes to stand for an entire landscape of memory. Overused symbols come to stand for much more than a simple word. I can tape two sticks together and form a cross...but the symbol of the cross stands for more than I could feel or reflect upon in my lifetime. Overused symbols don't loose meaning they gain meaning...they become associated through the association of ideas with an entire host of meanings.

The sense in which overused symbols loose meaning is akin to the story of the boy crying wolf. Crying wolf is symbolic of the wolf comming. If everytime the boy cried wolf the wolf came then the boy's crying wolf would have gainned meaning. Indeed it would have become symbolism like the rooster crowing signifies dawn. But in the story the boy cries wolf and the wolf doesn't come. When our politicians act like the boy crying wolf...then naturally overused symbols loose meaning...but they don't lose meaning by virtue of being used...they lose meaning by virtue of being used deceitfully.

One of the few sentences that is true in her article is this one: "Hypocrisy isn't inevitable, but neither is the wearing of symbols a guarantee of sincerity." Amen...this is what Obama ment, and in meaning this he doesn't insult Iowans.

"it's probably best not to insult all those nice Iowans who have flagpoles in their front yards and flag pins in their lapels." This is total suggest that Obama couldn't differentiate between politicians appropriating symbols for cheap political points...and honest everyday american people who feel a true attachment to the symbols they display. In point of fact I believe her entire narrative against "exhibitionist" symbolism is meant to cloud the distinction between those who are sincere and those who aren't. Obama didn't insult anyone...he stated a self-evident truth. The real insulter is the one who rails against "exhibitionist" symbolism. Kathelene Parker insults every american by likening them to politicians and suggesting that we should be skeptical of the allegiances and motives of everyday americans. "In the Age of Public Virtue, it is apparently essential that citizens flaunt their patriotism; crucial if they're running for public office." This is complete lymbic brain and Neocortex conspire against her formulation...the everyday americans I know are honest when it comes to the exhibitionist symbolism they display and the causes they champion. That minivan with the Jesus loves you sticker wasn't the result of a focus group that suggested that HRC should demonstrate more faith.

When everyday americans cry is because they think there is a wolf. It isn't because some focus group says...sir it would be convinient if there was a wolf. The fact that politicians today have completly hollowed out deep meaningfull symbols and rendered them meaningless does not mean that symbols will become meaningless with use. In fact the true believers watch as the symbols they stay true to gain in meaning. The old veteran has stood before the flag and rendered the salute at reveille for a long time...but this does not detract from the isn't a meaning that is destroyed by repetition for it is a remmembrance of all that he values.

Overused symbols only loose meaning when no one knows what they mean anymore because the supposed adherents have poluted the concepts.


I agree with you. Emotions are processed mainly in the limbic system, though, of course, they constitute initially physiological responses to sensations, then perceptions, and so must pass through the brain stem, etc..

I also agree that flash decisions are sometimes adaptive. When a squirrel dashes in front of my car, I don't need to know how old it is, or how many siblings it has in order to quickly decide to run over the squirrel instead of the baby carriage on the other side.

Also I like what you have said about overused and co-opted symbols.

I would add, though, that symbols are different from signs, and when they are used as signs, then a great deal of information gets lost, and we treat ourselves and each other as caricatures, instead of as multidimensional persons. If that treatment then has the effect of causing a one-dimensional response, then we truly experience a "dumbing down" of our interpersonal relations. Name-calling substitutes for character assessment, and symbol avoidance substitutes for thoughtful analysis.

JL: I find your violent reaction to Parker odd in light of your more sensible comments last week about reserve. There is such a thing as a genuine display of sentiment and--of course--such displays can be heartfelt as well as useful and practical. But they are very easily overdone without some kind of internal barometer to gauge them--just as any individual's affection or disaffection can be overdone in outward displays not governed by reason. I think Parker is right to suggest a need for more reserve in this. As much as I support an awareness of and research for breast cancer, to give just one example, what can explain a need for a fuzzy pink breast cancer slippers and pajamas? Who is one informing by wearing them? Is that the time or place for such a campaign? Should I buy my husband a matching pair of prostate cancer boxer shorts so we can settle in for a romantic night of pleasant dreams? The missionary zeal (and the blatant profit motive) behind much of this stuff can be more than a little off-putting, I believe.

There is an important reason for what I said...I will get back to you after I go post a winning poker session. Reserve is a cardinal virtue at the poker table.

Leaping back to #9, I think of my students who tell me in their writing that they are unique and explain or define that by citing the clothes they wear, earrings or other piercings they sport, hair styles or colors, which all look the same to me as those of six other kids in the room. They know one another from a distance and I see them grouping themselves in the courtyard or even in my classroom based on those visual clues. "Taste on our sleeves."

And yet, I would argue that people have always done these things to whatever extent was possible. With prosperity, more stuff, more external cues are possible.

And John's remark Overused symbols don't lose meaning they gain meaning...they become associated through the association of ideas with an entire host of meanings. is quite true.

But I'll give Julie the silliness of fuzzy pink breast cancer slippers (a polluted concept?) and doubt that those will accrue meaning with the years. Lint is more likely. And I will repeat my assertion that the plastic bracelets are indecipherable as symbolic clues because there are just too many of them. (What was the original plastic bracelet? I forget.) The wearers may be sincere, but the meaning of those symbols are lost on me. I do know that wearer means something by the wearing of the thing, but I am lost as to what. Give me a flag any day. But who cares if people buy or use that stuff? I do not see what harm it does. I can't bring myself to go into Christian bookstores because of the cheapening of the symbols and the profitable proliferation of the same, but I do not despise the other mothers of children at my daughter's school who wear the trinkets, or put bumper stickers on their cars or - whatever - and know that there were stands that sold somewhat similar things outside of shrines a thousand years ago. At least my friends are not being sold bits of the true cross. There have been such things worn, sold and used maybe for as long as humans could do such things.

I don't like the Marxist and post-modern sociological narratives that underlie her argument against "exhibitionist" symbolism. I don't like the sociological approach period. I think it is cheating to assume that somehow you have avoided "topiariness". Instead of a sociological approach I would take a psychological approach that sought to understand the particular agents as they understood themselves...or at the very least one that spelled out the limits of what it is possible to know from flash judgements and appearances.

I object to Kathleen Parker saying that Obama was insulting Iowans who wave flags. In order for Obama to be insulting he would have had make a sociological argument. He didn't do this, he made a psychological judgement. What Obama said was true. What Katheleen Parker said was going beyond what can be truthfully said.

The important question to ask is what can be known about those who partake in exhibitionist symbolism? To jump the gun and embrace a narrative of anxiety or alienation is premature. Maybe everyone is "outer-directed"...maybe everyone is a topiary, a la Marx. Maybe all of Kate's students do group themselves on the basis of what to Kate seems shallow criteria. But what I think can be said is that they are grouping themselves according to what they think is important. As they mature I am sure they will come to have different priorities, and they will organize themselves around these other priorities. I am not saying that one cannot make judgements...indeed I am saying that judgements are possible...behavior reveals priorities and belief. Exhibitionist symbolism is thus simply a behavior that tells me something about what an individuals priorities are. But since all behavior is potentially informative I would be hesitant to make too much of fuzzy pink slippers. I doubt I would find it worthwhile to get into such a mind...but if I did I would assume it would go something like this... "Yay! cuteness! Pink! and a portion of the proceeds goes to fight cancer...awesome." Now obviously I don't think that a person who buys these slippers is a deep thinker...but I could be wrong... I would need more information about the person...and in analyzing a person I would not place a lot of emphasis upon fuzzy pink slippers...they may be a great gal. If I was in a public cardroom and I noticed these slippers I would probably assume the player was loose/creative...comfortable in her own skin. My thinking would parallel Obama's: just because a person wears fuzzy plink slippers nothing necessarily needs more puzzle pieces. Exhibitionist symbolism(political issue signs)that are directed primarily at politicians are a means of telling the politician what you think is most important and should be prioritized. A smart politician looks out at a crowd and says wow look at all those pro-life signs...I mention something about justices who will reverse Roe v. Wade.

In reply to Julie: "what can explain a need for a fuzzy pink breast cancer slippers and pajamas?" I suppose those who buy them think they are cute..but I would be hesitant to assume that I could infer too much about the person or the motives they have. "Who is one informing by wearing them?" Ditto. To assume that the only function of such clothing is informative is going further into the mind of an abstract person than is possible. I would have to have a concrete example...a living human being to answer this question...and if I was curious I would ask them...odds are good that they might smile at me and say: "I think they are cute." or they might say:"my mother died of breast cancer and I wear them in remmembrance of her because pink was her favorite color"...or "it reminds me of the carpet at my grandmothers house"...once again who knows the motive or the thinking behind such things..."Should I buy my husband a matching pair of prostate cancer boxer shorts so we can settle in for a romantic night of pleasant dreams?" I think by your sarcasm you answer this question for yourself...personally most guys I know are generally indifferent to what is on their boxers...if the girl was nice enough my preocupation would not be on my boxers...

"The missionary zeal (and the blatant profit motive) behind much of this stuff can be more than a little off-putting, I believe." perhaps...but I think the blatant profit motive would drive out of business the fool who tried to sell prostate cancer boxers...Capitalism and the profit motive is in its essentials exactly like politics...politicians sell us what we want to buy. I think that in the context of politics exhibitionist symbolism is simply our way of telling the politicians: market this to me...focus on this...I think this is important.

A minor point: I wasn't saying that my students' criteria was shallow. I am impressed that they can sort one another out with criteria to which I am largely oblivious. Some, the really dark ones all in black and studded, are the extreme situation, but others in the spectrum have their "sort fields" all worked out, but I do not know their symbols and identifying badges until I see them in a group when some resemblances become more clear to me. This group wears hoodies with school names whereas that one wears hoodies with brand names and that one wears sports team hoodies. They see the symbols, I don't. When I see them in class I am not even very aware of the hoodies as I am looking at faces, not for the symbols. They are, indeed, grouping themselves according to what they find important. It was just an observation.

"A minor point: I wasn't saying that my students' criteria was shallow." Well you see Kate...I can't even make accurate assumptions about what you are saying. If you had said that I might have agreed.

Sometimes I think politics is just like high school...everyone is fighting for a place in the members of a certain group...we wish to have more pages dedicated to our concerns...and we aren't really interested in knowing why someone else considers something important.(notice that this is a sociological claim) when I say something like this I am comming very close to agreeing with this statement by Kathleen Parker:"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." I may not even disagree that there are some people for whom this observation is true...some people stuck in a high school mentality. But it does not follow that everyone is stuck in a high school mentality...nor strangely enough does it follow that those in high school that were guilty of this ever understood themselves in this way.

What gets me most about Kathleen Parker is that she wants to have it both ways. She understands that it is difficult enough to determine what necessarily follows given symbolism, because of hypocracy wide stances...multiple functions and differing justifications...and yet this doesn't stop her from advancing a sociological narrative. But if determining the motives and true beliefs of a single person is difficult then can we ever form a true sociological narrative, since this would require a cummulative array of particular psychological judgements about the motives and understanding of others?

Because she is in love with her sociological narrative she says something that is most likely false about the motivations of people who buy pink toasters: "Buy a pink toaster and maybe breast cancer won't get us." What grounds do we have for assuming that those who buy pink toasters think of them as good luck charms? "Affix a fish emblem to our cars and maybe Jesus will get us home safely." Ditto with fish emblem bumper stickers...I suppose that if I talked to some christians they may argue that Jesus watches over them or that they have a guardian angel...but few would suggest that a bumper sticker was the functional equivalent of blood on a door to ward off the angel of death at any case if they believe that Jesus will get them home safely it is a more complex belief than the functional act of putting up a bumper sticker. "Valium with adhesive backing." She might as well have said: "Opiate of the masses" But as soon as you accept the "Valium with adhesive backing/Opiate of the masses" narrative you close yourself off from understanding these people as they understand themselves. All sociological narratives are inherently presumptuous and require a God like psychological accumen. In fact the problem with high school and the problem with a lot of politics is that people order themselves by a sociologically lens that is not justifiable psychologically. We need to return to the question: what can I know?...What conclusions can be drawn from the exhibitionist symbolism of others? What can I really know about the other? The answer is that a puzzle piece is not the whole puzzle...and until we know how many pieces are in the puzzle we can't even know how important that one piece is. In this mode of explaining things psychology is a puzzle piece and sociology is the complete puzzle. This is why it is incredibly irritating to me to have someone on the one hand acknowledge skepticism towards our capability of understanding a particular puzzle piece...and then proceed as if they have grasped the whole puzzle. What follows from exhibitionist symbolism? Nothing necessarily and necessarily Nothing...we have to determine how each piece understands itself.

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