Old Glory's everywhere: Long may it sell

Is it desecration or celebration? The difference, it seems, is in one's intent

Ideas: Flag Waving

July 03, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave - on bandanas and beach towels, on aprons and ashtrays, on coolers and playing cards, socks, sneakers, suspenders, ties, tote bags, fanny packs and welcome mats.

And not just o'er the land does it wave, but around the shoulders, atop the heads, on the lapels and even between the legs of the free - as in the case of the American flag G-string and thong available from Teddygirl.com.

As Congress ponders a Constitutional amendment to prohibit "physical desecration" of the flag, its commercial exploitation - once viewed as so crass that most states passed this country's original flag-protection laws - continues unabated, relatively unscorned and largely unnoticed.

"What used to be seen as abuse of the flag is now seen as patriotic," said Robert Justin Goldstein, a political science professor at Oakland University in Michigan and author of Saving Old Glory, a history of the American flag and its desecration.

For the better part of this nation's history, the biggest perceived threat to the flag's sanctity has not been those targeted by the proposed amendment - who would burn or abuse it in an act of dissidence - but those who would co-opt its image for commercial purposes.

Today, though, the latter is nearly as out of control as it was in 1902, when one flag-protection pamphlet denounced "sordid tradesmen" who used the flag in "advertisements of beer, sauerkraut candy, itch ointment, pile remedies and patent nostrums, to serve as awnings, horse blankets, merchandise wrappers, pillow and footstool covers or as miniature pocket handkerchiefs, on which to blow noses, or with which to wipe perspiring brows."

As Goldstein and other flag historians see it, a resurgence in displays of patriotism that took hold in the Reagan years and rocketed in the aftermath of 9/11 has once again propelled (or debased) the flag from an icon to be displayed with reverence to one that can be duplicated on doormats, plastered on sneakers, emblazoned on footballs and flying discs, even stamped on your underpants.

But this time around, if it's being done out of patriotic zeal, or in the name of good old American capitalism, it seems anything goes.

Even the debut of red, white and blue Little Patriot disposable diapers - a portion of the proceeds from which were earmarked for the Red Cross - raised no stink when they appeared on the shelves at Wal-Mart in 2002.

When Kid Rock wore an American flag poncho for his performance during the infamous halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl, there was some squawking from flag purists, but the outcry was brief and all but forgotten after Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

"The thing that yanked my chain the hardest was seeing this ignoramus with his pointed head stuck up through the hole he had cut in the flag of the United States of America," said Georgia Sen. Zell Miller. "This is the same flag we pledge allegiance to, the same flag that is draped over the coffins of dead young uniformed warriors killed while protecting [his] bony butt ..."

But once it became clear that Rock's wardrobe choice was his notion of patriotism (he'd performed in USO shows in both Iraq and Afghanistan), the outrage faded away.

If you don't think times have changed, consider this:

In 1968, Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, while protesting the Vietnam War in Washington, was arrested for wearing a shirt that resembled the American flag. This past Memorial Day in Washington, at a rally of Vietnam veterans, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed up decked out in a very similar shirt.

It's becoming all about intent. If it's patriotism that is moving you, you can wear the flag, or even burn it.

While flag burning is the very sort of desecration the proposed amendment would give Congress the power to prohibit and punish, burning is also the designated method of disposing of a flag under the U.S. Flag Code, adopted by Congress in 1942.

"Prosecution would all depend on the thoughts in your head," Goldstein said, "and in my opinion, in a democracy, we don't prosecute people based on what thoughts are going through their heads."

Long after George Washington reportedly asked Betsy Ross to sew the first one, even after Mary Young Pickersgill sewed the one that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the Star-Spangled Banner, the American flag was not a household item.

Not until the fall of Fort Sumter and the arrival of the Civil War in 1861 did the flag-making business get a foothold.

"If you look at what happened in the north after Fort Sumter fell, it reads uncannily like what happened after Sept. 11," said Marc Leepson, author of the recently released book, Flag, An American Biography. "Before the Civil War, it was basically unheard of for the public to fly an American flag."

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