There have been two time periods in my life during which I wore an American flag pin on my clothing. The first was back when I was in high school in the early 1970s. In protest of the Vietnam War, I wore an American flag pin upside down, a symbol of distress. I wore it along with other buttons, badges, and pins, including my homemade “I am an effete intellectual, nattering nabob, snob for peace.” (It repeated the unforgettable adjectives for war protesters uttered by that paragon of virtue, Vice President Spiro Agnew). My wearing of the upside down flag pin got me kicked out of typing class during a mid-term exam, which resulted in my only “D” during my high school years (not that there were so many “A's” either.)
The second time I wore an American flag lapel pin was in the days after 9/11. Bound together as a nation, facing a national tragedy, we were united across political, social, and generational lines in our collective grief, not just that 3,000 innocent people had been intentionally and brutally murdered, but that our country could be attacked like that, so easily, on a cloudless September morning. Powerless to do anything individually except watch “breaking news” coverage and talk about it among our friends, we banded together under the flag, wearing it proudly, as sign that, despite our differences, we were all Americans, and, in this at least, we were unified.
Everyone was wearing them: liberals, conservatives, independents, rural Americans, big city Americans. We needed to show the world that we stood together, and wearing a flag pin — a sign of unity under the principles that have bound us since our founding — was a very visual way to do that. I stopped wearing the pin when the flag began to stand, not for the principles that make our country great, not the least of which is freedom of speech, but for a view of patriotism that has more to do with the flag and allegiance than to the ideals behind it.
People seem to use those little flag pins to express their patriotism. Fine. No problem with that. But does not wearing one mean that you’re not patriotic? And by whose definition? Is it the unwavering support of an administration regardless of what it is doing in our name? When patriotism comes to mean silent acquiescence and not thoughtful consideration, we have gone astray of the ideals of our nation. When questioning the validity of a policy is labeled unpatriotic; when exposing the lies told by an executive branch run amok with delusions of absolute power is deemed subversive under someone’s ideas of “national security;” when questioning the continuation of a dubious and ill considered war is deemed to somehow being unsupportive of the soldiers on the front (when in fact the opposite may be true), we are weakened as a nation for the suppression of necessary debate.
The flag does not stand for blind allegiance, and it does not replace (by a long shot) the urgent need of everyone to understand (to the best of their knowledge) the issues, all sides, and judge — and question. Our flag stands for the healthy skepticism about government power and wisdom, and certainly not for the notion that our nation is run by an all-powerful executive branch with the other branches in existence to support and cheerlead. It stands for the Constitution — that body of laws and principles that govern and define us.
Patriotism is certainly not defined by the wearing of a lapel badge (more than likely manufactured in China) American flag. And to ask (as one questioner asked during last week’s ABC Democratic debate) whether Barack Obama “believes in the flag” does nothing but show the ignorance (yeah, call me an elitist) of the of the questioner. Believing in the “flag” doesn’t mean believing in a piece of metal affixed to a blazer. Was she really questioning whether Obama believed in our country? Questioning his patriotism? She said she was not; what, then was she calling into question because Senator Obama does not happen to wear a flag lapel pin? The flag is merely a symbol, meaningless except for what it represents — “liberty and justice for all.” The Bill of Rights: free speech, right to assemble, due process, habeas corpus. That’s what the flag stands for. Believing in the flag means supporting the government when it is right, and having the courage to criticize and otherwise speak out when it is not. It sometimes means being a cheerleader, but so often means being an opponent, although the former is a far easier variety than the latter.
Upon reflection, I wonder if I shouldn’t re-pin the flag pin on my lapel. Affix it with the appropriate dash of righteous indignation, refusing to allow the far right to hijack the very notion of patriotism, and its most visible symbol. Or maybe design a new lapel pin — a miniature of the US Constitution, with its oversized “We the People…” To me, that’s really what we’re protecting … and what we stand for: for ourselves and as a symbol for the rest of the world.