What Would Abbie Hoffman Have Thought Of The Flag Lapel Pin Debate?

[ Posted Friday, July 4th, 2008 – 13:09 UTC ]

First off, happy Independence Day!

I'd like to address, in as patriotic spirit as can be mustered, the wearing of United States flag lapel pins, and the inherent silliness this debate represents. Flag lapel pins are all the rage these days, but the battle over wearing the flag is older than you may have thought. Older than the battles in Congress over flag-desecration amendments to the Constitution (which stretch back to the 1980s... and which even Democrats who should know better still occasionally vote for in Congress... ahem).

In 1968, in the fading years of one of the most un-American chapters in our entire history, the "House Un-American Activities Committee" ("HUAAC" or "HUAC") still existed. This committee was set up to root out (as you can tell from the title) "un-American" activities... which started out as "communism" but soon morphed into "anything the right wing didn't approve of." It was in this later incarnation that, in 1968, it was holding hearings on those unruly and upstart youngsters, the hippies.

These were not patchouli-reeking slackers (OK, well, maybe some of them were), these were the youth of America who were organized, seriously annoyed with the direction of a very unpopular war, and wanted to influence the political debate of the day. They formed their own "political party" in Chicago (at the Democratic National Convention), which they called the Youth International Party -- or, the "Yippies." At the forefront of this movement was the radical leader Abbie Hoffman. And in 1968, he was called before HUAAC to testify on his activities. His testimony followed fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin, who had appeared in front of the committee dressed in (as Hoffman later described it): "Beret by IRA. Black pajama bottoms by Viet Cong. Bandoleers borrowed from the mountains of Mexico were crisscrossed across the bare sexy chest of a yippie warrior -- his body slashed with lavish swatches of red paint."

Needless to say, political theater was very big, back in the day. Why don't we have committee hearings this entertaining today, one wonders...

But the question remained, how could Abbie possibly top this opening act? Again, in his own first-person account (from his book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture):

"In exactly two hours I'd do more for the flag than anyone since Betsy Ross. As our star-spangled retinue approached the hallowed halls of Congress, a detachment of police summoned to the scene quickly encircled us. 'You are under arrest for the desecration of the flag. Come with us.' ... Instantly the steps became a swarm of cameramen, cops, and screaming yippies. ... I fought for life and shirt, swinging wildly. Rrrrrrrrrip! 'You pigs, you ripped my fuckin' shirt,' I screamed... The next day I stood before the judge, bare to the waist. The tattered shirt lay on the prosecutor's table in a box marked Exhibit A. 'You owe me fourteen ninety-five for that shirt,' I mentioned. Bail was set at three thousand dollars. 'Get out of here with that Viet Cong flag. How dare you?' the judge intoned. 'Cuban, your honor,' I corrected [Hoffman had painted a Cuban flag on his body]. A few months later this same judge started letting his hair grow long, called for the legalization of marijuana, and began speaking out against the war."

When the trial was held, under a brand-new section of U.S. law (Abbie claims he was the first person tried under the statute, which carried a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine), the judge, whom Abbie reports "deemed it his duty to find me guilty," allowed him to make a statement. Big mistake, for anyone who knows Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman's response was: "Your honor, I regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country."

The case, of course, was later overturned on appeal (since it was blatantly unconstitutional to begin with), and Abbie never had to serve the month-long sentence handed down. Abbie reports further: "By the time we had [won the appeal], over three dozen people had already been arrested for similar offenses. A vest in Virginia. A bedspread in Iowa. All with the familiar flag motif. In arguing for the government in defense of the law, Nixon's prosecutor stated, 'The importance of a flag in developing a sense of loyalty to a national entity has been the subject of numerous essays.' The first essay the U.S. government quoted was a lengthy passage from Mein Kampf, by history's most famous housepainter, Adolf Hitler."

Hoffman went on to wear a similar shirt on the Merv Griffin Show, which was the first example in television history of a show being broadcast with the video edited out. This proto-pixilation showed the entire screen as a deep blue, rather than subject America to an image of Abbie Hoffman with a flag motif shirt on.

Note that: flag motif. Abbie never cut up a flag to make a shirt, he bought these patriotic items from people who manufactured them. As Abbie relates his appearance with Merv (emphasis in original):

"I told him how I had just been given a thirty-day jail sentence, not for wearing the star-spangled shirt, but for the thoughts in my head; how Ricky Nelson, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Raquel Welch, and Phyllis Diller had all worn similar flag garb on television and in movies; how anyone could go to the fashionable boutique a few blocks from the studio where I had bought the shirt and get one just like it."

Get that -- it's not just wearing the flag that will get you into trouble, but your political beliefs while you wear that flag. Starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Abbie's appearance was aired the next night, but with the following disclaimer read by the vice-president of CBS before the broadcast (and before it was visually turned into a completely blue screen) [editorial note in brackets in original, by Hoffman, speaking in first-person]:

"An incident occurred during the taping of the following program that had presented CBS network officials with a dilemma involving not only poor taste and the risk of offending the viewers but also certain very serious legal problems. It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag [not true; it was a shirt with a flag motif]. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation the network executives have decided to 'mask out'' all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand."

Pioneering television. Elvis' pelvis was just kept off-screen, but the birth of what would develop later into pixilation had its origins not in hiding inadvertent nipples (a la Janet Jackson), or someone flipping the bird to the cameraman, but to hide a man wearing a shirt with a United States flag motif.

Abbie, however, got the last laugh, as he was so often wont to do:

"In all, 88,000 people were angry enough that night to call and protest the censoring. In the following days stores all over the country sold out their stock of shirts bearing the flag motif, demonstrations were held at CBS offices in three cities, and Merv Griffin publicly apologized, saying he had not been told of the censoring in advance."

The Yippies went on to nominate, during the tumult surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a pig named Pigasus to run for President of the United States. Like I said, it was the era of great political theater.

Jump forward 21 years. In 1989, the "Flag-Burning Amendment" was in its infancy, but tensions were high. Republicans were successfully using this as a "wedge issue" to show American voters how gosh-darned patriotic as all get-out Republicans were when it came to sanctifying the American flag (an idea which would cause every single one of the Founding Fathers to spin in their graves so severely that their long-dead neighbors in their respective cemeteries would have risen to file complaints about the resulting noise). But Representative Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives from the great state of Colorado, had this to say during a hearing of the Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, on the subject of U.S. Flag Desecration:

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I too join in thanking you for calling these hearings. Mr. Chairman, I am very pleased that we're looking at this because I've probably had a little longer experience with this whole flag issue than some of the others. After my exploratory race for the presidency in 1987, one of the women's magazines decided that they wanted to do a documentary about that and we thought about what kind of cover would dramatize my feeling about the process and about America.

And we decided to do one of myself wrapped in the flag in the Sylvester Stallone, Rocky II-type of thing and in the American hockey team type of thing showing the expansiveness of the American system and how exciting it was. We thought it was a very positive, upbeat, love of America type of thing.

Well, I can tell you a lot of people didn't. (Laughter) I got lambasted by all sorts of people for that. And as that little mini-debate raged in America, people started sending me all sorts of clips. Mr. Chairman, I won't bring all the clips but both the pros and cons would send me clips talking about what do we mean when we talk about flag desecration and what are we talking about in this whole area of how do we use the flag or who can use the flag.

Because of all of these clips, which anybody's welcome to look at, I probably have the world's biggest file on the American flag in Washington, and on public officials crying in public, but I won't bring them all out. But let me just show you some of the things that are interesting. We have here Barbara Bush at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial with a flag around her neck during the inaugural. We have someone who made a cashmere flag into a dress for $2500, and we have Abbie Hoffman wearing a flag.

Now, you know, that's a range of things, and it's interesting -- are some of those desecrations? Is the commercial use good or bad? Those are very difficult issues. Then we have the whole thing of what do you do with artistic renditions. Here we have the Washington Times, not exactly a leftist newspaper, putting the President in a flag. Is that proper? I'm not sure. If you look at the American Legion calendar for 1988, they were the first to criticize my use of the flag. I was on the February cover of 1988. Let me show you the January cover of the American Legion magazine's calendar, and I'm not quite sure what the difference is in all of this. It's a little puzzling, but maybe that's okay and I'm not. Again, I am -- have difficulty in knowing where all these lines are.

And finally, here we have an interesting thing where the top picture is one of the recent press photos that many people protested; women using the flag at one of their meetings. However, the bottom picture is the lady's auxiliary of the VFW marching. And I really wonder how we know which of these is desecration and which isn't. They're both women's groups. They're all American citizens and they're all talking about the flag.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, I find this a very complex issue. Do we allow commercial uses of the flag over used car dealers in magazines and advertisements? We've got all sorts of those that I could have brought on board and shown you. What about political parties use of the flag? Should one political party be able to hide behind it or isn't the flag big enough for everybody?

As I've seen America, it's been a wonderful country big enough for more than one opinion, and that flag is a symbol that's big enough to encompass it all. So as we talk about desecration, as we talk about intent, my experience has been these are very difficult issues, and I hope people tell us how we will know who's truly desecrating and who's not. Burning is a lot clearer. What about all these other things? And what does desecration really mean?"

That's right. Twenty-one years after Abbie Hoffman was prosecuted for wearing a flag, the First Lady of the United States appeared in much the same garb. Of course, she didn't face a court case for doing so, reinforcing Hoffman's claim that he was being persecuted, not prosecuted, and his claim that, "I had just been given a thirty-day jail sentence, not for wearing the star-spangled shirt, but for the thoughts in my head." But finally, Democrats were fighting back. The concept of outlawing flag-burning has died down somewhat since those days. With no help, I must admit, from another woman who recently ran for president.

It should be noted (back in the 1980s, when she became First Lady) that nobody arrested Barbara Bush. Or even suggested it. How times change.

Here is the appropriate federal law, still in effect, from (assuming I get this legal citation correct) Title 4, Chapter 1 of the United States Code, titled "The Flag." Paragraph 8 ("Respect for the Flag") reads:

No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America

. . .

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

. . .

(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.

. . .

(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.

(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.

Whew! At least they left that loophole in there for lapel pins! One almost might think politicians wrote this particular piece of legislation, and left such a loophole for themselves. Ahem.

So -- according to this federal law -- every single car dealership, mattress discounter, tire shop, grocery store, electronics outlet, and other business who uses the flag in any advertising purposes "in any manner whatsoever" should be equally as culpable as Abbie Hoffman in the disrespect shown the American flag. And anyone who uses a paper napkin this weekend with a flag printed on it should be ashamed to call themselves an American. Any athlete participating in the Olympics wearing any part of the flag should be immediately arrested.

Or maybe not. Maybe the flag can survive on its own, as it has been doing nicely for over two centuries. And maybe the Bill of Rights actually means what it says, too. Tinkering around with it only invites turning the Bill of Rights into a political weapon to be used by one faction against another. Personally, I feel that if you give the government an inch, they'll take a mile. You go down this road, and pretty soon Congress will convene committees to determine what is "un-American" and what is not. Which, to me, is one of the most un-American concepts in our entire history.

Because once you start talking about what the "intent" of the flag-wearer is, you have jumped over the Constitution and are now attempting to prosecute Thoughtcrime. The cops would have to figure out whether wearing a flag pin really made you patriotic, or whether it was some sort of protest of some type. And we wouldn't want cops making these distinctions, would we? And we certainly wouldn't want such a silly debate to determine who became our nation's leader. One would think.

So happy Independence Day, for those that have stuck with this polemic to the end. And if you go to a parade today to celebrate our freedom, and see someone there dressed as Uncle Sam -- complete with red-white-and-blue flag motif clothes -- feel free to cheer. Feel free to wear a flag pin. Or not. Or even wear a flag-motif shirt yourself. Because freedom means being able to wear a flag motif in celebration of our 232nd birthday as a nation, and (even more importantly) freedom also means being able to do the exact same action to protest this nation's government. That's what freedom is all about.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “What Would Abbie Hoffman Have Thought Of The Flag Lapel Pin Debate?”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hey, CW!

    I thought you were gonna take the day off today and enjoy the festivities. Well...a very nice post, anyway.

    It was a work day here, like any other. And, in honour of all my friends down there, south of the border and beyond, I dressed for the white linen capri and a fun red/white/blue Americana tee emblazoned with a mish-mash of stars and stripes, bits of the American flag, Lady Liberty, get the picture...oh, and red shoes to top it off! Something that fun to wear couldn"t possibly get me into any trouble, could it?

    Happy 4th of July!

  2. [2] 
    DinkSinger wrote:

    Great essay!

    One little historical correction. The Un-American Activities Committee was originally created to investigate Fascist, not Communist, subversion.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    I think CW just meant he wasn't going to do an http://FTP....

    Happy 4th! :D


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth -

    Michale's right, I just said I was punting on the Friday Talking Points. I wrote this the night before, since it's not very "up to date" and could be prepared beforehand. I think last year's 4th column was better, though, so check it out.

    I completely forgot to mention last month that it was the one-year anniversary of this blog. And the two-year anniversary of my appearances on the Huffington Post. Woo hoo! It's been lots of fun, I have to say...

    Hope you had a glorious fourth yourself.

    DinkSinger -

    I think I answered you over at Huffington Post in the comments, or someone who brought up the same point you did. Click the link at the bottom of the article to see my response (summed up: you're right).

    Hope everyone had a great 232rd birthday of America!


  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    CW and Michale,

    What, did you guys think I was criticizing a lack of a FTP post, of all posts!? Did you both lose your sense of humour or do you just think I'm an idiot!!!

    Anyway, so what did you think about my fourth of July outfit...I was serious about THAT! Geesh...

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    ...oh, I forgot to say Happy Anniversary!!...on both counts! Keep 'em comimg!

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Did you both lose your sense of humour or do you just think I'm an idiot!!!

    I refuse to answer under the grounds that anything I say may incriminate me. :D

    Just kidding.. :D


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