Respecting the U.S. Flag

The flap over Sarah Palin’s picture on the cover of Newsweek brought up an issue that has long been a sticking point for me — but it has nothing to do with running shorts or the tone of the picture. It has to do with the American Flag.

I don’t know how they picked Todd Puckett and me out of a crowd of junior high students way back when, but they did. We were sixth graders at Shelby County East Middle school when we were selected to put up the flag every morning. Maybe somebody told them we were dependable. Maybe it was that we didn’t miss much school.

Regardless, Todd and I would retrieve the flag from its place in the school office every morning, and run it up the flag pole. We were, almost instinctively, I think, very conscientious about this task. I can remember dashing out of class if I saw it start raining, so that the flag would not be displayed in the rain.

At the end of the day, we took down the flag, folded it properly, tucked in the last flap of fabric and returned it to the office.

Maybe all that flag-raising drilled something into me. I remember reading the U.S. Code Title 36 Chapter 10 for proper care and usage of the flag.

I suppose that’s why, over the years, I have had a few problems with the way the flag is treated. For years, U of L fans railed — and wrote to me — angry that the team did not display the American flag on their uniforms. I always wrote back the same thing.

The U.S. Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Paragraph J, says, 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.

The Code is silent on whether a pin should be worn, therefore would have had nothing to say about whether Barack Obama wore or did not wear one during his run for President.

The Code is clear, however, on another practice, one that I have opposed at two newspapers I have worked for. At least twice in my career, newspapers for which I have been employed have used full pages to print a replica of the flag to be displayed in widows or other places. (The display has usually been sponsored by an advertiser.) Again to the Flag Code, same chapter, Paragraph 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.

Furthermore, the flag should not be used as a clothing design, or, as the code says, “should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.” Moreover, from the U.S. Code:

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.

Which brings us to Palin. This isn’t a political discussion, but I’m surprised her handlers would allow her to be photographed with the flag in such a position. (I also was surprised when they allowed her to wrap herself in a flag for a photo last year). Note: I’m assuming this Newsweek photo is an accurate representation and that the flag wasn’t Photoshopped in. I have seen no allegations that it was.

I was always impressed, in covering high school sports in Indiana, that if the colors were presented by a color guard before the game, crowds invariably (and properly) did not sit down until the colors had left the field of play, well after the National Anthem had ended.

At a recent University of Kentucky basketball game, an older man upbraided a college student for standing with his hands behind his back during the playing of the National Anthem. During the presidential campaign, Obama got caught on this one, standing for the anthem with his hands together in front of him. Many people do this, and I’ve never thought it disrespectful. But, to be accurate, the U.S. Code says:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there.

So that’s the nit-picking rules lecture for today. It should be noted that the President may modify portions of the flag code at any time. (I’m assuming Bush did for athletic uniforms after Sept. 11). Carry on.

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