In the late ’80s the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction, for flag burning, of Gregory Lee Johnson. It was a 5-4 decison and Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion, asserting the principle that one’s First Amendment rights must be protected even though his fellow citizens might find an act unconscionable.

Following the news stories, I thought it might be a cool idea to make a flaming flag lapel pin. I thought they might sell, and maybe if we’d had an internet then, I could have found somebody to make them. Like so many of my big plans, it lived only in my sketchbook and fevered conversations.

In the two year run-up to this election, I became thoroughly sick of the pin. If the flag-wavers love the display that much, they should tattoo it on their necks like prison inmates. For a candidate, the pin seemed as de riguer as church-going. (I discovered it was a bit of a misconception, though, when in one of the Republican debates only 3 of the 10 participants wore flag pins — this, however, did not discourage anybody on the right from pointing out when Democrats failed to wear them). Yeah, let’s get all our patriotism from our doubtful friends — flags and lapel pins from China, oil from the middle east, and maybe the Sith can build us some nuclear reactors in space.

After the election, I figured the country would recycle the pins — melt them down to a reddish slurry, ship it to China to be spun into poor quality solder, then shipped back to us in TVs, toys, and clarinets.

But a few days after the election, I did a double-take. People who were never required by their roles in society to wear flag pins were doing so. I didn’t expect to see the New York Daily News columnist, Errol Louis, a black man who seems to have much in common with Obama (in Louis’s case, undergraduate degree from Harvard, Masters from Yale, and a Law Degree from Brooklyn College of law) wearing a flag pin. And I saw a few other center-left interviewees and commentators, wearing flag pins. I don’t recall who they were, but there were a lot more than I would have expected.

The election’s over. Why don’t people dump this silly shit?

The obvious answer is that suddenly, certain people are proud to be American. Maybe it’s their way of saying — like Michelle Obama — “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”

In some future time — long after I’m gone, I hope — the fascist mentality we’re so familiar with will return to America. The dark side reasserts itself in history and the best thing we can do is enjoy optimism while it lives. When things go in the ditch again, look for the keepers of patriotic morality to single out those who showed love for our flag only after a Socialist-Marxist-Terrorist was elected to office. Sure, it sounds far-fetched, but it must be remembered that the same mentality was at work after WWII, when McCarthy put the fear of god and the flag into everybody. The McCarthyites came up with a term for those, who in the 30s, expressed a dislike for the Nazi’s and other fascists of Europe. They were called Premature Anti-Fascists. The implication, of course, being that it was all right to be against evil only after your government has declared war against it. That happened for us, six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Before that, the official position of America was isolationist. Though FDR was in his third term as president, it was a largely Republican-backed position, complete with German-American Bund rallies that had the same hateful flavor as the ralies of Palin/McCain (yes, her name goes first in this circumstance).

It’s funny, in the 80s Americans thought an amendment prohibiting the burning of flags would solve the problem of people burning flags. Nope, enlightened government and hope for a better future is what prevents that kind of nonsense.

That, and the fact that American flags manufactured in China burn with the toxic ferociousness of a napalmed chemical dump.

4 Responses to “R.I.P. for the Flag Pin? Maybe not.”

  1. John Crawford Says:

    The term “premature anti-fascist” was, contrary to common belief, not originated by the US government, but by the leftists themselves. The chief source for the story was Milton Wolff, the famous American commander in the International Brigades. He claimed that when he and another volunteer from the Spanish Civil War enlisted for WWII, the Army sent them to training camp but refused to train them. His friend supposedly snuck into the records office at the camp and found their files stamped “P.A.” An army clerk confirmed that this was the designation for “premature antifascist”. The problem is that it just isn’t true. No one has ever been able to show that the term “premature antifascist” – or even the cryptic “P.A.” – was ever used by the government.
    Wolff, who died recently at the age of 92, was a man of great courage and conviction. During the 1960′s in NYC, I walked into a pipeshop I coowned as Wolff was walking out. My partner, an old lefty himself and not one given to easy admiration, murmured, “Ah, what a man!”
    “Who was that?” I asked.
    My partner responded, “That was The Wolf of the Appenines!”
    Wolff was a middleaged pharmaceutical salesman at the time, which was exactly what he looked like. But to all the oldtime leftists, he was a demigod. Like many of the idealists of his time, he was also a Red. But, except in his own telling, he was never really a “premature antifascist”.

  2. fwickham Says:

    John –


    Possibly I’ve been relying too much on Wikipedia:

    “In the United States the volunteers were labeled as ‘premature anti-fascists’ by the FBI. It was the signal to assign them to non-combat units or inactive fronts and to deny them promotion. [13]”

    I didn’t know, myself, that the name was coined by the forces who were fighting Franco, et al. Or even that the term was first applied to them. I just thought it was an FBI term for all varieties of pinkos from before WWII.

  3. John Crawford Says:

    Hi, Fred, I was sorry to hear that you were still bedeviled by staph. Since these superbacteria seem to thrive in hospitals, maybe we should return to open air surgery. Your amputation could have been carried out in a tent in the Presidio as part of a Civil War reenactment. (“Boy, that whitehaired guy is a great actor! He screamed as if they were really sawing his leg off!”)

    Somwhere, I read an alternative explanation of the origin of “premature antifascist”, in which soneone claimed to have suggested it in a speech as a whimsical explanation of the “P.A.” designation. However, it now seems certain that the “P.A.” stamp itself never existed. Interestingly, Wolff was among those who followed the party line after the Hitler/Stalin pact and only argued for intervention after Hitler invaded Russia. So, from a Stalinist viewpoint, he was an absolutely punctual antifascist. When the Army wouldn’t let him get into WWII, he – along with a lot of the other International Brigades vets – volunteered for the OSS and were parachuted into Europe to work as laisons with partisans. Here again, they performed heroically. Wolff also volunteered himself and his doddering comrades in what they now called “Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” for service on the side of the North Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh declined the offer … fortunately for you, since Wolff was supposed to be pretty handy with a machine gun. He was also supposed to have stolen Hemingway’s mistress. As my old partner said, “Ah, what a man!”
    Best regards, John C

  4. Fred Wickham Says:

    John –

    Punctual Antifascist. I hope it catches on.

    As for Wolff training the North Vietnamese machine-gunners (or not training them), I wouldn’t have been affected. Although I was stationed on Okinawa, I got out (1962) before Vietnam heated up.

    I would like to be an actor in the local production of the Civil War reenactment, though. Anything to get my show-business break.

Leave a Reply