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The Truth, Mainly - 07/03/1995

Desecration needs interpretation

After the patriotic fireworks in the House six days before the Fourth, we're now a step closer to a new constitutional amendment to allow states to prohibit "the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

Lots of people—including 60 percent of those polled by the Star last month—think we don't need the amendment.

They're probably the same people who think we don't need the Star Wars anti-missile defense the House majority just voted to spend another $768 million on, even though Pentagon planners didn't request the money.

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one problem with the amendment that would let us punish desecration of the flag: it doesn't say what desecration of the flag means.

Most people think it means flag-burning, but the Code of Etiquette for Display and Use of the U.S. Flag says that when a flag wears out, it "should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

So desecration must be something else.

We can get some hints of what it might mean from the Code of Etiquette. It's full of advice for those of us who worry about such things

For instance, I have long wondered how to avoid desecrating the little U.S. flag on the Old Glory "G" postage stamps. Reading between the lines of the Code suggests the right thing to do:

A gentleman recipient of a letter bearing the Old Glory stamp should remove his hat with his right hand and place it at his left shoulder over his heart, then stand at attention for a little while and look very serious.

A lady recipient need not take off her hat, but she should place her hand over her heart and look interested.

Aliens of either sex need only stand at attention and refrain from making rude noises.

Even before reading the letter, the recipient should carefully remove the Old Glory stamp from the envelope and fold it just so, never letting it touch the floor. When it wears out from the folding, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.

Under the new amendment, I'm afraid, failure to observe these practices will result in the criminal being taken out behind the Post Office to be beaten about the head and shoulders by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Code also says the flag should never be "used as a costume." We'd all agree that covering your backside with Old Glory clearly constitutes that kind of desecration.

But won't "costume" also include those little American flag lapel pins Republicans have been wearing since the Nixon Administration to show how patriotic they are?

Under the New Patriotism, anyone wearing such pins outside the privacy of their own bedrooms could be run up a flagpole. Anyone saluting them could be taken out behind the Post Office for their appointment with Dr. Schwarzenegger.

The Truth, Mainly


And if literally wearing the flag is disgusting desecration, how innocent can it be, the new laws might say, to metaphorically wear it for personal adornment? Especially if, as is often the case, the emperor wears no clothes under the flag he wraps himself in.

That would mean we'll have to arrest political candidates, militia leaders, columnists, radio talk show hosts—anyone who desecrates the flag by wrapping himself in it and telling us what a patriot he is. Or would have been if he hadn't been handicapped by a bum knee or an academic deferment.

Dr. Schwarzenegger will see you all now for group therapy.

As you can see, the Code's injunction against using the flag as a costume has far-reaching implications.

The Code also says the flag "should never be used for advertising purposes."

That means we'll have to convert entire shopping malls into holding centers for the desecraters who put flags on nearly everything they sell.

Franchise restaurants competing to see who can fly the largest flag and thereby attract the most patriotic customers to eat their patriotic food would, of course, be shut down, and the CEO forced to eat his own All-American Special or have his attitude adjusted by Dr. Schwarzenegger.

The rationale behind the advertising ban, I assume, is that the flag shouldn't be associated with enterprises designed to trick people into buying things they don't need under the guise of patriotism.

And contemplate the far-reaching implications of that:

The flag couldn't be flown over the Capitol during much of the current session of Congress. Especially when the inmates are pretending to do something useful for the general weal by amending the Constitution so we can punish flag desecration.

Whatever that means.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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