I am an American who wears a small American-flag pin in my lapel. Few people have ever mentioned it to me, favorably or otherwise, but I am aware that some individuals are quietly offended by the practice. They seem to feel that, since they don't wear one, I am implicitly opening them to the accusation that they are somehow not as "patriotic" as I am.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the days of the Vietnam War, I have made it a practice to wear such a pin whenever my country is at war. It seems the least I can do. It proclaims my loyalty to the country's cause, and my support for its soldiers in their battle. It is an assertion of my own sentiments, and certainly not a reflection on anybody else's.
There are any number of reasons why a thoroughgoing patriot might choose not to wear such a pin. He or she may just oppose such clutter, or prefer some other pin. Many people simply dislike walking around with their political opinions in full view, almost as if they were carrying a signboard. And of course, there are plenty of people who are thoroughly patriotic but have reservations about the Iraq War, which they feel might be disregarded if they wore a pin that could be misinterpreted as endorsing it unreservedly.
So there are legitimate differences of opinion and behavior on this subject. People who decline to wear flag lapel pins are certainly entitled to be free of criticism for their refusal. And I and the other pin-wearers, in turn, are assuredly not going to be scared out of wearing them because somebody else chooses to read into the gesture some implication that just isn't there.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. jumped into this controversy recently when a reporter noted that he was no longer wearing a flag pin -- and asked why. He replied that he felt it had become "a substitute" for "true patriotism," so he "decided I won't wear that pin on my chest; instead I'm gonna try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."
That alternative will no doubt work for Obama, who is running for president and has loads of opportunities to tell us what he believes will make this country great. But it would hardly do for those of us who don't have the senator's platform or his megaphone. If we nonetheless want to proclaim our loyalty to the country's policies and goals, a discreet lapel pin seems a good way to do it. For one thing, it spares others from having to listen to us telling the American people viva voce what policies we think they should endorse.
For my part, I promise to wear my flag pin without intending any implicit conclusions about the patriotism of those who don't. I will admit that I have occasionally wondered whether objections to a flag pin indicated a sort of general hostility to various American policies. When I was on the "Advocates" television program during the Vietnam War, and was wearing a flag pin, furious viewers would write to the producers denouncing me for this alleged "superpatriotism." ("Does he wear it" -- this was their favorite question -- "on his underwear?") But such oddballs were few and far between, and I certainly didn't regard them as representative.
For their part, I hope that people who choose not to wear a flag pin will do me the reciprocal kindness of not assuming that I suspect their patriotism, let alone suppose that I consider it necessarily open to question. The decorative object that is really causing the trouble here is not my lapel pin. It's the chip on their shoulder.