In years to come, if any historians look back at the United States's entry into the 1990s, I expect they will be puzzled. At a time when the world was being reshaped by the collapse of the Soviet empire and the emergence of powerful new economic blocs in Europe and Asia, they will surely wonder why Americans were preoccupied by such topics as flag-burning, dirty records and government funding of offensive art.
My friend and former colleague Michael Barone has written a weighty history of the last 60 years, ''Our Country,'' which argues that cultural issues often have played a larger role in our politics than most scholars have recognized. If one thinks of race, religion, social status and moral values as the sources of cultural conflict, Barone certainly has a point. Debates on civil rights, abortion, foreign interventions and many other issues were driven by the cultural divisions in this republic.
But the incidents that provoked the headlined cultural controversies of recent days occurred on the fringes of American society. The 2 Live Crew recording, ''As Nasty as They Wanna Be,'' was commercially dying -- until a judge in Florida gave it a huge shot of free publicity by ruling it obscene.
The paintings, sculptures and performances that have enmeshed the National Endowment for the Arts in controversy represent a tiny sliver of its grants -- and have a comparably small audience.
As for flag burning, if the television cameras did not compulsively cover these attention-seeking protesters, most Americans would pass through their entire lives without having that offensive spectacle inflicted on them.
These are events that American society would have dismissed or ignored in times past, because we had far more important fish to fry: a frontier to settle and civilize; industries, homes and schools to build; a world to save.
These cultural disputes preoccupy us now, because we are floundering. No American leader in 25 years has discovered or articulated a popular goal to focus the nation's energy and attention. As we drift in our debt-financed, synthetic prosperity, we are losing confidence in our future. So we let ourselves be upset by fringe characters whose goal is simply to shake us up.
How do you suppose we managed to survive for more than 200 years in this country before forcing the Supreme Court to decide, twice in 12 months, the constitutionality of statutes protecting the flag from physical abuse? The answer is that we were too busy with matters of real importance to be distracted by such a question. State and federal laws protecting the flag go back more than a century, doing no visible damage to the First Amendment or the exercise of free speech. Violations were rare and occasioned little controversy.
A year ago, when the Supreme Court first ruled, 5-4, that the government could not punish a physical abuse of the flag, I thought the decision wrong. The reaffirmation last week is no more persuasive. Speech is speech, and it should be protected no matter how offensive to majority opinion. But Chief Justice Rehnquist made the obvious point when he said that ''flag burning is the equivalent of an inarticulate grunt or roar that ... is most likely to be indulged in not to express any particular idea but to antagonize others.''
Liberal judges have agreed. Former Chief Justice Earl Warren once wrote, ''I believe that the states and the federal government do have the power to protect the flag from acts of desecration and disgrace.'' The late Justice Hugo Black said, ''It passes my belief that anything in the federal Constitution bars a state from making the deliberate burning of the American flag an offense.''
This was a 5-4 decision, and those of us who disagree with it know it may be reversed with the next change in membership of the court. Meantime, the handful of flag burners are no threat to this society -- unless we inflate them into one by our preoccupation with them.
Some politicians would like to do just that. The decision was no more than announced when Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and others began illustrating dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens' warning against ''leaders who seem to advocate compulsory worship of the flag ... or who seem to manipulate the symbol of national purpose into a pretext for partisan disputes about meaner ends.''
One Republican who is not playing that game is John Yoder, the GOP candidate against Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Yoder is a former official in the Reagan administration Justice Department. He understands the appeal Rockefeller's support for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning will have in an intensely patriotic state like West Virginia.
I do not think the constitutional amendment is as fraught with danger to the Bill of Rights as Yoder and others do. But I admire his guts -- and his sense of priorities. He called the controversy ''a trivial issue for trivial minds.'' And he said that ''at a time when two-thirds of West Virginia's college graduates are moving out of state to find jobs, we have far more important issues to debate.''
America has far more important issues to settle. Let's not fall for the politics of distraction.