A european friend visiting in the United States once remarked, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country with more national flags. They’re everywhere.” It was an accurate observation. Display of the American flag has markedly changed over my lifetime. Even the flag itself has changed. I’m old enough to remember when Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th States (1959) and two more stars were added to the “Union”. My family and I displayed the flag on national holidays off the front porch…and reverently folded it and stored it until the next holiday according to the code of flag etiquette. A discreet, manageable flag flew over post offices and government buildings every day. Almost no one wore a flag pin, sported a flag decal, or displayed a flag day and night in rain and weather on the front of their home. We were all “Americans,” after all. We all stood for the same thing…or at least we so imagined.
The U.S. Flag Code has been enshrined in federal law with the passage in 1942 of Public Law 77-623. You can read the enshrined details in the United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1 The Flag.
I still cherish the flag that was draped over my father’s casket in honor of his service in World War I, the “war to end all wars.” That flag for me stands for the sacrifices of Americans who fought against the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Imperial Japanese in World War II, fought for the freedom of the people oppressed by these regimes. Many of those who marched with the flag on commemorative holidays had served in those conflicts, conflicts we understood were fought to make the world a better place, conflicts the wounds from which shaped the lives of many.
Little by little the use and display of the American flag has morphed. In my youth, at least in my mind, the flag stood as a symbol of freedom in the world, a symbol of our willingness to stand against murderous dictatorships. The flag was displayed discreetly and handled with reverence. Now oversize American flags adorn businesses and homes, standing out in all kinds of weather. American flags are found on lapels, shoulders of uniforms of the military and police and flap violently above pickup trucks, sometimes thereon reduced to tatters.
Why all these flags? When I talk with a policeman in Spokane does the American flag patch on his shoulder offer me useful information? Is there any likelihood he (or she) is a member of the Canadian or Mexican police force? Is there any chance I would mistake Camping World of Spokane or Freedom RV out in the Spokane valley for a Chinese dealership? Does concern of mistaken national identity merit a flag the size the state of Connecticut hanging limply from an enormous flagpole, so large it nearly touches the ground in anything but a 20 knot breeze, so long that half staff display is impossible without its resting on the ground?
I fear that for many the American flag has been co-opted as a sort of gang symbol, a symbol displayed internally that says to many who see it “we’re here, we’re proud, we’re exceptional, we’re white, we’re armed, and we will bury you or wall you out…or worse…if you don’t think as we do.”
Symbols are complicated. Like a word, a symbol can mean very different things to different people. The flag that draped my father’s casket still signifies honor and sacrifice, honor and sacrifice in pursuit of a better world, a world in which we and our children can live in peace, a world in which the United States plays a unifying role, not a divisive one.
I want my symbolism back. Perhaps it is time to display my father’s flag once more, and explain to any who will listen why I fly it.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. The enormous flag that flies over Camping World in the valley was the trigger for this post. I thought it was the hoist (height) to fly (length) proportion that bothered me, but, no, it is the absolute size. Here’s the background: It turns out that the specifications of U.S. Flag were laid out by one of those infamous Executive Orders, this one by Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. The official hoist to fly ratio in that executive order is 1:1.9, probably close to the Camping World flag’s proportions. Lots of commonly sold and displayed U.S. flags are actually 3X5 (1:1.67), the better to fly in a light breeze, especially in the traditional cotton material. My dad’s casket flag is 1:2. Many flags are now made of nylon. Nylon is much lighter than cotton and surely floats better in a lighter breeze. A 30X60 foot nylon flag (Camping World’s?) for a mere $1,139. I speculate whatever the expenditure it is taken off as part of their advertising budget.