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Keeping Faith with the Flag

American flags are everywhere again, but do people still remember how to treat them?

11:01 PM, Jan 7, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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EARLY IN THE MORNING of September 15, I drove home to New Jersey. As dawn broke on the empty highways I realized that something curious had happened: An American flag had been hung from every single overpass between Washington and Philadelphia. It was the first evidence I saw of the wave of flags that would sweep over the country. Within a week, America was engulfed in flags: in store windows, on T-shirts, on houses, on cars and trucks.

I looked for the overpass flags while driving back to New Jersey last weekend. Some are gone, but many are still there, dirty and tattered. Four months after September 11, many flags are showing their wear. Which makes it a good time to recall how we're supposed to treat our flags.

After the First World War, representatives from a number of patriotic groups (including the Army and Navy) met at the first National Flag Conference. They hashed out a set of rules for flag etiquette, and on June 14, 1923, they published the Flag Code. Two decades later, in 1942, Congress passed a joint resolution enshrining the Flag Code in the U.S. Code (36 U.S.C. 171). Through the years it has been amended a bit here and there--the latest amendment inaugurates September 11 as Patriot's Day (flags will be flown at half-mast and people will be asked to observe a moment of silence).

The Flag Code provides guidance about caring for the flag that is often quite beautiful. On raising the colors: "The flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously." On flying at half-mast: "The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff."

My favorite part of the Code is the section on lapel pins: "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."

With winter finally settling in, the weather should affect our flag flying. It's acceptable to fly your flag outdoors so long as it's an all-weather flag, but as the days get shorter, care should be taken to make sure that the flag is either taken down at dusk or illuminated at night.

The Flag Code specifies that flags should never be positioned where they can be easily soiled, which presents a problem for the ubiquitous car flags. Joyce Doody, director of membership services at the National Flag Foundation, says, "They really should be taken off of your car at dusk" so that they don't accidentally blow off and wind up by the side of the road.

And care should be taken to retire old flags properly. Many local organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion accept and retire old flags, but, Doody says, "citizens can do it themselves, so long as it's done in a respectful manner."

The Flag Code says that burning is the preferred method for flag retiring, but gives no further instructions. The National Flag Foundation website has guidelines for the ceremony:

1) Gather the family around. Raise the flag on the pole or staff or hold it aloft by hand.

2) Call the group to attention. Salute and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

3) The leader might say something like, "This flag has served its nation well and long. It is now worn to a condition in which it should no longer be used to represent the nation. We pay honor to this flag for the service it has rendered."

4) Fold the flag.

5) Give the flag to the group leader who will burn it until it is completely consumed.

While the little ceremonies surrounding our flag no doubt seem obsessive or provincial to some people, there's good reason for them. The Flag Code keeps us from lapsing into Princess Diana-ism, where civic displays lose their connection to higher ideals and become exercises in emoting designed to make people feel connected to a big event--or worse.

If we don't care for our flag, if it becomes just another disposable object that is tossed in the trash when we're done with it, then Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and the fashion designers who slap it onto sweaters and boxer shorts and jeans win: Flying the flag becomes just another bourgeois pose.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.