Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flag Day

Today is Flag Day. It is one of those holidays that you learn about in elementary school, but which then gets bulldozed out of your mind by high school, college, work, and family necessities. Flag Day, established in 1916 by President Wilson, was enacted to commemorate the adoption of a common flag by the original thirteen colonies on June 14, 1777, understandably an occasion of some importance during the war for independence.

The flag of the United States is one of the most conspicuous symbols on the planet, and for the better part of a century was one of the very few symbols or traditions that all parts of the United States (1861-1865 excepted) had in common, and so it became a major emblem of our national identity. For more reasons than there is room to discuss here, Americans make a very big deal out of the flag, to an extent that very few other nations equal. We hang flags all over the place and stick the flag on bumper stickers, hard hats, tool boxes, flowerbeds, textbooks, and mailboxes. We have a holiday just for the flag, though since nobody gets a day off, in 2011 nobody seems to care. The country’s national anthem isn’t about the country, it’s about the flag.

Sometimes the spirit is genuine, sometimes it’s rote memorization and regurgitating thirteen years of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in a school classroom, and sometimes it’s just not thinking at all.


For better or worse, the flag has become an inescapable touchstone, with moments as uplifting as the Apollo 11 moon landings, and as frustratingly banal as the Republican party’s manufactured furor over then-Senator Obama not wearing a flag lapel pin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Granted, not all the memories are happy ones–for example, the famous photograph of firefighters raising a flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Many people (myself included) also remain uneasy about the kind of indoctrinating flag-cult encouraged during the Cold War, in tandem with the use of the Pledge of Allegiance loyalty oath and its post-1954 religious elements, which strained the bounds of decorum and threatened to corrupt patriotism into mindless nationalism.

Flag-related issues do tend to crop up at times when patriotism is at issue—for example, proclaiming Flag Day during First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War, or during the post-9/11 ‘war on terror.’

Now here’s where it gets interesting. One of the things that drives me up the wall is bumper-sticker patriotism, where people stick flags and other symbols all over the place without understanding what they’re doing. In particular, many of the things commonly done with the flag these days are quite disrespectful of it, and specifically prohibited by federal law.

Sadly, this behavior also extends to people who profess to be the champions of the nation’s historic rights, dignities, traditions, etc. (I’m looking at you, Tea Party) are so mind-blowingly ignorant of the traditions they’re supposedly championing, that they actively trample and abuse the things they want to protect.

I am not a blood-and-thunder patriot by any means, but I believe that people should understand what they’re doing, and should practice what they preach. If you want to proclaim your patriotism, go right ahead—but if you’re going to use the national flag to do so, you should at least use it properly.

There’s no excuse for ignorance. The care and handling of the flag of the United States is actually stipulated in federal law (Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code, or 4 U.S.C. § 1 et seq), where anyone can look it up. That’s the point of having things published into law—so that people CAN look them up. The Flag Code was passed into public law in 1942 and was based on a voluntary guide popularized by the American Legion and other patriotic organizations during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some of the Flag Code’s rules for handling and displaying the flag are fairly common knowledge—e.g. don’t let the flag touch the ground. Some are less well-known than they should be. For example, some salient points (all citations from 4 U.S.C. § 1 et seq)

  1. § 3 The flag is defined as “any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture or representation of either, or of any part or parts of either, made of any substance or represented on any substance, of any size evidently purporting to be either of said flag, standard, colors, or ensign of the United States of America or a picture or a representation of either, upon which shall be shown the colors, the stars and the stripes, in any number of either thereof, or of any part or parts of either, by which the average person seeing the same without deliberation may believe the same to represent the flag, colors, standard, or ensign of the United States of America.” (In other words, if it has red, white, and blue colors and a stars and stripes arrangement, and a reasonable person would identify it as the flag, then it is the flag.)

  1. § 6 (a) It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness. (Tom’s note- in other words, unless you have a light shining on it, it’s inappropriate to leave the flag up all night. It goes up with the sun, and it goes down with the sun. This is why many national monuments illuminate or have provisions to illuminate the flag.)

  1. § 6 (c) The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.

  1. § 7 (b) The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle or of a railroad train or a boat. When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender. (Pay attention, bumper-sticker people)

  1. § 8 (d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. In other words, flag shirts are out. (Just think about it- if you wear a flag shirt, you’re sweating, spilling beer, and smearing mustard on the symbol of your country. Causing the flag to smell like a poorly-maintained armpit isn’t really respectful of the symbol of your beloved country, now is it? When Jimi Hendrix wore a flag shirt back in the 60s, he got death threats from patriotic groups. Now conservative Republicans wear flag shirts to political rallies! John McCain had the flag on his campaign t-shirts! Sarah Palin wraps the flag around herself like a blanket. They times they are a-changin’ indeed. Don’t even get me started on flag underwear. Skidmarks are never patriotic. )

  1. § 8 (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. (McCain again.)

  1. § 8 (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. (Flag Kleenex- you want to blow your nose on Old Glory? The ban on disposable goods and advertising is a noble sentiment but, of course, this is America—nothing can be allowed to be so sacred that nobody can make a buck from it.)

  1. § 8 (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. (Cheerleaders and the NFL, take note.)

  1. § 8 (k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning. (What does it say about how genuine your patriotism is if you let the country’s symbol be worn-out and reduced to shreds?)

One exception in the display specifications is that displaying one’s flag upside-down has long been an internationally-recognized maritime distress signal. This evolved into the upside-down display as a protest symbol—“my country is in distress.”

As a fun historical fact, the original version of the flag guide included the so-called ‘Bellamy salute’ originally used during the Pledge of Allegiance (also in Title 4), and which was quietly and permanently dropped in favor of the hand over the heart due to the Bellamy salute’s resemblance to the Nazi and other Fascist salutes, and so thoroughly written out of the nation’s memory that old pictures of schoolchildren giving the Bellamy salute evoke a sense of the Twilight Zone. My father remembers the day the teachers announced that the students had to salute differently. Though Francis Bellamy was advocating his salute and his Pledge of Allegiance long before the fascists came on the world stage, both Bellamy and the fascists were likely emulating the ancient Roman salute (‘ave, Caesar’ and so on). Paradoxically, Bellamy himself was a socialist and Baptist minister who had wanted to include the words ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ in the Pledge in reference to equal rights for racial minorities and women, but as he was writing a pledge to be used in schools, had to bow to the less broad-minded members of the educational establishment.

Ultimately, although the Flag Code is enshrined in federal law, there are no longer any criminal penalties for defacing or mistreating the flag—the Supreme Court held in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) and U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990), that these penalties unfairly restricted free speech. Prior to those cases, a Republican patriot wearing a flag bandanna was as open to prosecution as a Black Panther stomping on the flag.

Rather ironically, then, the right of a Tea Party activist to wear an American flag hat depends on the same free speech protections that allow an anti-government protestor to burn the flag. I wonder if they know that.

Still, it’s their prerogative to be hypocrites. I guess it’s too much to hope for that they actually live by the principles they preach. Just try not to sweat on the flag too much.

1 comment:

BossLadyWhite said...

So I obviously need to do better with blogging and following my bloggers,however,this my friend, is yet another gem that should be published somewhere for the guilty to see...hypocrites doesn't even BEGIN to describe IMO...I do understand more about the flag and its origins from your post,here...