I had an occasion this morning to review Title 4 of the U.S. Code; those sections which cover the respect to and display of the flag. I was reminded of some of the peculiarities which, in some cases, are practices meant as patriotic demonstrations, but are actually in violation of this code. I was perplexed, not to mention a bit alarmed, at one section of the code.
I have long thought that we as a culture -- not just American, but a Western culture -- have become confused concerning symbols and substance. Title 4 tends to bear that out in my mind. When put on paper in 11-point type, Title 4 covers six pages, and details everything from the design of the flag to its display to how and when the Pledge should be said. Yes, the Code very clearly describes how we are to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
The section which most caught my attention is ironically labeled Section 8. (For those of you who did not grow up around the military in the years after WWII, Section VIII was the portion of the Military Code that covered discharge of a serving individual due to mental incompetence.) Section 8 of Title 4 is headed "Respect for the Flag." It is a list of 11 rules dictating how we, as citizens, are to show our proper admiration for the emblem of our nation.
Herein lies the rub.
Attend almost any sporting event, patriotic parade, or convention and at one point or another, mostly during the Presentation of Colors, there will be a military or pseudo-military honor guard solemnly unrolling a huge American flag, stretching it between them like an impromptu colorful trampoline.
This is seen as an act of utmost patriotism and respect for the flag. For some reason, we seem to think the bigger the display the more patriotic it is. I’ve never figured this one out. It seems like walking into a crowd and shouting how much one cares about one’s spouse or religion: it may catch the attention of others, but it doesn’t take long at all until it becomes ostentatious and simply annoying.
But the fact is that the honor guards unfurling that flag and holding it flat to the sky are, in the end, dishonoring the very thing they mean to honor. Section 8, Paragraph c, states, “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.” In other words, the flag should never be carried or displayed in a way that it appears to be lying flat nor should it ever be bound in any manner other than tethered to a staff.
The only exception is when it is used to cover a casket. This is allowed under Section 7, Paragraph n, which is also the exception to Section 8, Paragraph b, which states the flag should never be allowed to touch anything beneath it.
Now that convention leads to some problems for a lot of people. How many folks, wanting to show their love of country, went out and bought door mats emblazoned with the flag proudly waving? And here, I pause to remember that these are many of the same people who, during the 60s, screamed the loudest about young people wearing t-shirts, hats or other apparel printed with the flag on them, saying they were disrespecting the flag by using it on clothing. The thing is, they were correct, which makes it all the more interesting that it has now become a way for those same people to voice their support of the flag.
According to Section 8, Paragraph d, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker's desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.” Just think of all the violations that fall under that statute!
So, when even our own military unintentionally fails to properly present the nation’s emblem, one can hardly blame the rank-and-file citizen for not doing so. But I do think it demonstrates the impetuosity of fervent “true believers” that, in their rush to show anyone and everyone just how much they love their country and, by implication, how everyone should, they end up doing exactly the opposite and, finally, having shown disrespect so many times over a course of years, having it become, by repetitious convention, an honorary ritual, even though, by articles covering it, it is not.
Quite a dichotomy.
But there was one last portion of Section 8 that more than any other reminded me of that Second World War provision for mental incompetence. In fact, I had to read it three or four times to make sure I wasn’t somehow misunderstanding it.
This is paragraph j which states, “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.”
Let’s set aside, for now, the phrase that states that only military, fire, police or patriotic groups are allowed to wear a flag patch (better go rip that right off your Harley jacket right now!) and cut to the chase. It’s that sentence buried in the middle of the paragraph that I find disturbing -- “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”