(Used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to his novel Put Out More Flags)
Are you currently wearing a flag pin?
Yes? Then you love America.
No? Hmm. That's gonna be a problem.
It was apparently President Richard Nixon who inaugurated the practice of wearing an American flag tchochke as lapel décor. And it was a consciously political act, an attempt to co-opt the grand symbol of the United States to connote support for his administration's actions as being the essence of Americanism. In the decades since Nixon's fall, it has become a necessary cover-your-ass talisman for politicians to avoid being perceived as not loving your country enough.
Eight years before the New Yorker published Dana Fradon's cartoon in 1969 (Nixon was president), Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 depicted the intimidating hollowness of coerced loyalty. Captain Black's Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade made “each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission” or even to eat in the mess hall:
[There was] a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there.
(Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 1969)
It was an understandable (and cunningly deceptive) ploy at the time of Gill's review, when foreign cars were mounting their formidable attack on Detroit's dinosaurs, that the largest American flags flying along any town's automobile row were on the sites of foreign-car dealers. But the spread of American-flag-itis in the subsequent decades has become, I don't know, absurd? laughable? or what? In the very heart of American capitalism—the New York Stock Exchange—we find these floor traders fending off accusations of Bolshevism:
And we couldn't have un-American backboards in the National Basketball Association, could we?
But back to the lapel scrutiny. Gilbert Cruz states,
Short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism.
Although that “stars and stripes onesie” sounds like a great patriotic idea, our politicians might be able to go one step further and bedeck themselves like empty-headed Bubble (Jane Horrocks) in “Absolutely Fabulous”:
Update--August 7, 2016
From the New Yorker, Jan. 17, 1970: