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Hanging in my office at home are several variations of Jasper Johns’ paintings of the American flag. Few people ever see them and those that do rarely comment, so I’m not sure what they think about the art. Do they believe the reproductions are intended to be ironic, hyper-patriotic, merely decorative?

I also have no idea what Johns thought about the works or what he intended by the paintings. In fact, I’ve actively avoided finding out so that his artistic intent doesn’t interfere with my own personal, peculiar interpretation. For me, seeing the Flags helps me to better see the flag.

Normally when I look at an American flag I see—an American flag. Although not consciously recognized, there is a certain semiotic understanding that the flag (a cloth with stars and stripes) is merely the signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America. Of course this leads to another level of recursion since the concept of America is also a sign that stands in for a variety of signified items, both tangible (our homeland) and intangible (our ideals).

When I look at Johns’ Flags , though, I see something different: an abstract representation of an abstract symbol that itself represents abstract concepts. In looking at the paintings I no longer see “American Flag” but see past the symbol to what it represents.

Something similar occurs when I see a flag pin on the lapel of a politician. I recognize that the pin is not merely a reproduction in miniature of an abstract symbol but is intended to convey a specific message to the politician’s constituency and to align oneself with the abstract concepts represented by the flag.

This line of thought leads me to ask, “What does it mean when Sarah Palin wears a lapel pin with two flags—for Israel and the United States?”

Palin recently wore the pin while giving her speech at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Although I had heard a lot of commentary about the speech and the convention, I hadn’t noticed this tidbit until James Joyner mentioned it on his blog . Like Joyner, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention. As he says,

I can’t think of any major politician who openly wears the flag of foreign power–especially to a political event. A little digging indicates that in her brief term as Governor of Alaska, she also displayed an Israeli flag in her office.

Now, I personally don’t have any problem with showing support for Israel, which is, after all, one of our allies. But openly wearing a foreign flag at political events and displaying a foreign flag in the governor’s office does beg the question of whether Palin herself feels that she might feel like she owes loyalty to two different nations–or at the very least, to the alliance of the two countries above.

Like Joyner, I don’t have a problem with a politician expressing support for an ally. But context matters. For John F. Kennedy to claim “Ich bin ein Berliner” in West Berlin was a harmless bit of silly Cold War theatrics. Had he said it in West Texas, though, it would have been perceived quite differently.

Palin’s defenders might contend that the pin merely represents support for a key ally. But if that is true, why not a pin with Great Britain or Canada? Why not Japan or Australia? (Can you imagine the reaction if the pin had included Mexico or France?) Why single out Israel at a domestic political rally? Obviously, Palin views Israel as an ally that differs in kind or degree from the others. So what, in her view, sets that country apart for special recognition?

Also, what values does the Israel side of the pin represent that the American side fails to convey? Surely, the Israeli flag doesn’t merely stand-in for either the Israeli government or the Israeli people (which are, at times, in opposition). Our flag represents not only our people and our land but our values and ideals; I would be surprised if the same is not true for the Israeli flag. But which of that country’s abstract qualities does Palin intend to align herself with by wearing the symbol?

While I share Palin’s esteem for Israel, I confess that I find it peculiar that any politician would wear the flag of a foreign country at a domestic political event. For a conservative politician to do so is especially disconcerting. Progressive politicians may embrace a cosmopolitan vision of transnationality but conservatives should not. Nor, for that matter, should we be ashamed of our localist affections or our willingness to pursue our national interest.

My fondness and respect for our allies (particularly Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Poland, and New Zealand) is equal to anyone else in America. But our allies and their interests should never be conflated with the peculiar set of people, interests, and values that is denoted by the term America. Call me a jingoistic patriot if you must, but I believe in American exceptionalism because—with no disrespect intended to our allies—America is exceptional .

No doubt Palin would agree (if she doesn’t then she needs to leave the national political stage forthwith), which makes her sartorial choice all the more curious. Perhaps she can explain why an American flag pin isn’t enough of a symbol to convey what she stands for.

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