Let’s Just Stop Wearing Flags

I guess I’m just old fashioned: I don’t see anything at all “patriotic” about reducing the flag to an item of clothing. That supposed patriots are outraged by Nike’s decision to not release a “Betsy Ross” shoe doesn’t so much baffle me as it further convinces me that those who cry patriotism over the flag have very little actual regard for how the American flag is treated. I can’t believe that anyone who truly cares about “respecting our flag” would want to strap even an imitation flag to his feet and walk around that way.

I come to my ideas about how to respect the flag from my great-grandfather. He had some very specific rules about how the flag was to be treated. He was an enthusiastic patriot who tried to enlist in the Army during the First World War, but he was sent home because he was too young. Then he once again tried to enlist during the Second World War, only to be turned away as too old. He had to settle for sending his sons off to war and working in a small arms factory during WWII. He instilled his notions of patriotism and respect for the flag into several generations of Gibsons — including me, his oldest great-grandchild.

I was taught what he deemed the “proper” etiquette for displaying and caring for the flag. Back when I was a child in the 1970s, one of the lingering hippie trends that my great-grandfather (and pretty much every other adult I knew) disapproved of was to apply a patch that looked like it was cut from an American flag to the seat of a person’s pants. Giving the impression of dismembering a flag to make a patch for clothing was bad enough, I was told, but to incorporate a part of a flag into mere clothing and then sit on it was the ultimate in disrespect.

With that kind of lesson in my youth, I now shudder at the thought of wearing flag shoes. I despise the notion of wearing a shirt that creates even the false impression of having been created by piecing together fabric cut from American flags. I reject the notion that patriotism means incorporating our flag into any garment whatsoever; to the contrary, patriotism compels me to not disrespect our flag by treating it as mere fabric to be sewn into a shirt or shorts.

To be clear, my standards for treating the flag are a matter of personal choice. I don’t believe anyone should be prohibited from creating flag-centric garments anymore than I think people should be compelled to stand for the national anthem. I even respect a principled protest involving the flag, since the flag stands for our country and the freedom of speech in our Constitution. What I can’t abide with is this casual disregard for the flag that reduces the symbol of our nation to nothing more than a cheap fashion statement.

It’s rarely okay in my mind to wear the flag or elements of the flag. Wearing the flag is no show of patriotism. The rules of respect instilled in me from an early age just don’t permit me to accept more than a few, very specific ways to “wear” a flag without disrespecting it.

First of all, if you win a major international sports competition on behalf of our country, you certainly should feel free to literally wrap yourself in the flag for a brief period of celebration. Just don’t throw it on the ground when you’re done! I would normally be squeamish about exposing a flag to my sweaty body after exertion, but at the Olympics or a World Cup where the sweat was produced, at least in part, in the service of national pride there’s a very narrow exception to the otherwise firm rule against actually wearing a flag. I know that I will never be able to avail myself to this exception to the prohibition against flag-wearing, but that’s no reason for me to start trying to carve out more exceptions for myself.

Other than the moments after a sports victory on behalf of our nation, no living person should be wearing the flag as anything other than a small insignia. A small flag patch on the shoulder of a uniform is a sign of service and belonging. A small flag lapel pin can be a subtle statement of patriotism, while a tie seemingly formed from a strip of the flag is, at best, tacky.

This may all seem like a lot of arbitrary rules, and maybe they are. Maybe I adhere to them only because they were drilled into me while I was young. Maybe I need to come up to speed with the modern times and stop fuming inwardly when I see Americans bedecked in stars and stripes and claiming to be patriotic. Maybe I just need to embrace a new kind of patriotic apparel.

Maybe.

But I’m not budging from this hill. Here I shall remain because I recall well that I was taught of one instance when it is fitting to drape a person in the flag.

I may be old fashioned, but I remember what my great-grandfather taught me about wearing the flag. To wear a flag is something you only earn through sacrifice. As a matter of personal ethics and patriotism, I will not dishonor those who have made that sacrifice to wear some gaudy shirt.

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