Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Flags of our Fathers

Lisa, in cleaning out her great grandmother's house, has come across something fun - Better Homes and Gardens from the early 1970s. I know, I'm a history nerd, and this alone would be enough for me. But on the last page of each of them there's a feature called "The Man Next Door." It appears to just be pithy little one-liners and observations of this Burton Hillis fellow. It actually reminds me a lot of a Twitter feed in some ways. But in one issue I noticed he had a slightly longer entry, and I feel I need to reprint it in its entirety and discuss. He writes in the May 1971 issue:

"When I received my bank statement in the mail last week, I noticed that an American flag decal was included in the envelope. An attached note explained it was a gift, given in the hope I'd put it on my car window. At first I was pleased.
"Later, I began wondering if it was really the great idea it seemed to be at first. Showing off the colors on special occasions is something our family has always enjoyed. Yet having the Stars and Stripes constantly displayed on my car seemed somehow out of step with our family's attitude toward the flag.
"And what about the people who didn't have a flag decal? Might I risk implying, however unintentionally, that they were somehow less patriotic than I? I decided against the decal, feeling it was more a sign of current political ferment than an expression of genuine patriotism.
"Then too, it seemed Old Glory deserved something better than being dumped in the same class with billboards and bumper stickers, many of them bearing vaguely ominous messages like 'America, love it or leave it.' Used like this - or as a shirt on a bearded youth - the flag becomes a political football rather than a symbol.
"My family agreed. To us, pride in our country can't be synthesized into a decal. Patriotism, like all ideals, must be something we feel within ourselves."

I wonder what all the people with red, white, and blue ribbons on their trunks would think of this. It appears Mr. Hillis' "Billboard and Bumpersticker" people have won this debate, but I like his reasoning. I've always thought the flag doesn't belong along side "My other car is a _____" or even "God is my copilot." In fact, I have a feeling that a good portion of people who wear Old Glory on a T-Shirt or sport a dirty, salty, and torn flag on a bumper sticker are the same people who support anti flag desecration amendments whenever they come up, but I'm not convinced that many of them are familiar with U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1 (U.S. Flag Code), which Cornell Law School has presented very simply and well here. Sections 3 and 7 are especially relevant to the display of the flag. Also, Title 36, Chapter 10 deals with civilian use of the flag as well. Section 176, Respect For The Flag, has some interesting things to say about the Stars and Stripes on clothing, as clothing, as drapery, as napkins, etc. Did you know that politicians wearing lapel pins are arguably breaking the U.S. Flag code?
Much of the ramblings of Mr. Burton Hillis are dated humor and somewhat sexist anecdotes, but I can't help wishing that the country had heeded his advice on flag display. The flags of our fathers would appear to have been flags of discretion, and I can only imagine the pride that would fill my chest if I saw the flag in his patriotic light instead of with the political implications I see it now. Just something to think about, I guess.
More on the old Better Homes and Gardens in the next post - so if you're not a history nerd like me feel free to tune me out for a bit.

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