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Who’s Desecrating the Flag, Anyhow?

by George B. Tindall on Mar 31, 2000


            Now that the Senate has failed once again to muster a two-thirds
   vote for the "flag-burning" amendment, perhaps the honorables can turn
       their attention to another hot topic. How did this flag issue get so
       turned around in the first place?
            It used to be that burning the flag was the approved way to
       dispose of a worn-out flag, and that wrapping yourself in the flag was a
       sure sign of phony patriotism. At least that's what they used to teach
       us in the Children's Auxiliary of the American Legion back in the 1920s.
            Lately a lot of folks have been saying that flag burning ought to be
       outlawed, while with spring now at hand, millions of sunshine patriots
       are turning out at the parks and beaches with various body parts veiled
       in the flag. In the army we used to have a saying about troublesome
       people getting their ass in a sling. Now we have people in wholesale
       lots getting their ass in a flag.
            Those impudent flag burners do seem to have been trying to tell us
       something. They don't express themselves too clearly, but they are
       experts at getting people all riled up, maybe more by dragging the flag
       in the gutter than by the burning. Or maybe there are so few of them we
       never see enough to catch the message. The Supreme Court, nevertheless,
       has found them entitled to freedom of speech. And, no doubt, faced with
       those sunshine patriots wrapped in the flag, would say the same thing
       about them.
            For a long time patriotic groups have drawn up codes of flag
       etiquette in such matters. In 1923 the War Department issued a circular
       on the rules and later that year a conference of patriotic societies
       approved most of them. Then, in 1942 (wartime), a Joint Resolution of
       Congress, amended in 1976, codified "existing rules and customs
       pertaining to the display and use of the flag."
            Those rules frowned upon the use of flags on clothing, with such
       exceptions as uniforms for the military, police, firefighters and
       "patriotic organizations," but not athletic teams. The rules detailed
       how and when and where to display the flag, how and when to salute the
       flag and forbidden uses of the flag, as in advertising–presumably this
       would apply to businesses now competing the have the biggest flag in the
       neighborhood. One can't help suspecting that has more to do with profits
       than with patriotism.
            Uses of the flag have spread to some unforeseen things, too.
       Plumbing, for instance–a bathroom sink decorated in a flag motif. So
       far, mercifully, no matching toilet bowl seems to have turned up–but
       these days you never know. There are, of course, the shirts, pants,
       kerchiefs and sundry undergarments. One congressman a couple of years
       back turned up on the House floor in a flag necktie while he lambasted
       flag burning.
            Maybe the senators who have been debating the amendment need to
       just let the amendment go now and get up a little discussion on the
       floor about the more pressing question of flag etiquette. Maybe they
       need to think about a new flag code to replace the one they once passed
       and promptly forgot. They could review existing rules and customs of
       flag courtesy, systematize them and bring them up to date, not as
       commandments but as guidance for people who prefer to salute the flag
       and the Constitution.
            Of course they would have to challenge an enormous vested interest
       in flag fashions: the garment industry and maybe even a plumber or two.
       It would be fun to see just how the rag trade would react to that–or
       the millions who have become so heavily invested in the fad.
       Going after them would take more political courage than going after
       an occasional punk dragging a flag through the gutter. But it might
       elicit a lot more dignified treatment of the flag than we have grown
       accustomed to seeing lately.
            Then maybe they could take up the really hard question of how to get
       people to read the Constitution.

George B. Tindall is Kenan Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a writer for the History News Service.