Franke: The Flag

October 21, 2020

by Mark Franke

The American flag seems to be everywhere these days and I suppose that is a good thing. After all, the flag is a symbol of who we are and what we believe.  We are a creedal nation, as George Will describes us.

My childhood recollection is that there was a federal law prohibiting the use of the flag and its image in any manner other than posted on a flagpole or hung according to strict guidelines. I don’t recall seeing any other uses when growing up back in the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration.

Now one sees its being used for clothing, travel mugs, soccer chairs and even COVID masks. Granted, the people who purchase such items do so out of respect for the flag and to publicly display their commitment to its principles. They are proud to be American and want others to know it.  

Still, these uses are technically illegal. My childhood memory is correct; there is a federal law proscribing such uses.  The odd thing is that the federal law includes no penalties for violations. That is the open door to patriotic and respectful display regardless of what the law says. The flag as a symbol has become personalized to most of us here in the land of the “deplorables.” We respond blatant disrespect for the flag on national newscasts by displaying its image everywhere we can. 

What happened during my seven decades of life to cause this? Could it have been the public flag burning that began during the Vietnam War? Remember Rick Monday’s outfield dash to rescue a flag that had been ignited by protestors at Dodger Stadium?

The American Legion, an organization of veterans who fought for this flag, continues to make respect for the flag its number one legislative priority. A constitutional amendment is introduced every congressional session but never goes anywhere. As a Son of the American Legion based on my father’s service in D-Day, I certainly understand that heartfelt determination to protect the flag even though the chances of a constitutional amendment are virtually nil.  

The passions are certainly heating up now. The furnace got restoked by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during pre-game national anthems and the aftershocks of that. Now kneeling is de regur at many professional sporting events. One might take these multi-millionaires more seriously if they did something tangible, such as donating significant percentages of the massive incomes they receive for playing little boys’ games to charitable causes that actually help the less fortunate.

This is the disconnect we have in our nation today. I go anywhere in public here in northeast Indiana, appropriately masked of course, and I see illegal but patriotic displays of flag images. Then the national media show me another world entirely. The coastal elitists are quick to claim some kind of moral and intellectual superiority over us in fly-over land where we only care about “our religion and our guns,” just two among the many liberties the flag represents.  We have become an underclass, relegated to a serf-like existence generally ignored by our betters unless the opportunity for ridicule arises.

So do well-intentioned people disrespect the flag when we wear it on our clothing? Technically, I suppose we do yet one can’t help but wonder why the federal law contains no penalties for violations. Maybe that’s why the American Legion and other patriotic organizations want a constitutional amendment to sanction at least the most egregious actions of disrespect.

The conundrum for classical liberals like me is to reconcile the principles personified by Old Glory with the more visceral attitudes about treatment of the flag itself. Should it be illegal to wear the flag image as a shirt?  Probably not, so perhaps that’s why there is no enforcement of the federal law. Our First Amendment right to freedom of speech is the higher order “law” in this case.

What about the flag burners?  Are they exercising their same right to freedom of speech? My brain says yes while my heart screams no. As usually is the case, I will go with what my brain tells me. The maintenance of liberty, all of it, is the reason we have a constitutional nation today.

But it wouldn’t hurt for our schoolchildren to begin each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as their grandparents did. That may help them preserve their idealistic innocence long enough to ensure America remains “one nation under God” rather than the dystopian shouting match seen on 24-hour news channels.

Isn’t that our role as a beacon of liberty?  The whole world is watching indeed.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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