The Universal Notebook: It’s a grand old flag

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A District Court judge has dismissed the request of the Freeport Flag Ladies, a trio of women who have been waving American flags on Main Street in Freeport since 9/11, for a protection order against a young man they claimed was harassing them, a young man whose father was aboard one of the hijacked airliners that terrorists flew into the Twin Towers.

I must say I am perplexed by the whole flag-waving kerfuffle.

If the young man showed up at their home to harass them, as alleged, I’m surprised they couldn’t get a protection order. If it’s just that they don’t like competition and criticism, that’s another story. If you’re not for freedom of speech for all, then you’re not for freedom of speech at all and, by extension, don’t fully comprehend what the American flag stands for.

Frankly, I’m not really sure what the Freeport Flag Ladies stand for, other than standing on the sidewalk every Tuesday morning waving flags. They started out demonstrating in support of 9/11 heroes and victims, but 15 years of mission creep seems to have taken them into the deeper waters of supporting our troops, thanking veterans, expressing general patriotism, championing freedom and embracing the American Spirit, whatever that is.

Seems to me if you’re out to support victims of 9/11, and the son and wife of a victim of 9/11 are troubled by your flag-waving, maybe you’d want to reconsider what you’re doing. The victim’s family seemed to feel that the Flag Ladies’ patriotic flag-waving had morphed into a nationalistic statement against Muslims and refugees, which I assume it is not.

The only folks who seemed to get it right in Freeport were a group of Freeport High School students who demonstrated across the street when the Flag Ladies were joined by a few dozen supporters in a show of flag-waving solidarity that ended with one of their number getting hit by a passing car.

“I’m not against the flag ladies at all,” said high school student Lindsay Cartmell, “but I don’t think there is a clean line here. Why can’t you support troops and veterans and be welcoming to refugees, too?”

Exactly.

As with the South Portland High School students who last year took a stand against mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Freeport students got it just right.

The American flag does provoke strong emotional and political responses. In 2006, a proposed flag desecration amendment that would have made it illegal to burn or otherwise desecrate the flag failed by a single vote in the U.S. Senate. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted for it. In the House, where the bill passed easily, Second District Rep. Mike Michaud voted yes, while First District Rep. Tom Allen voted no.

You have to wonder whether, had the amendment passed, the Freeport Flag Ladies might have run afoul of the law by wearing their American flag blouses and driving their American flag truck. Both practices are entirely legal, of course, but they are also clear violations of American flag etiquette.

As spelled out in the U. S. Code, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery,” “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform” and “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.”

I’m old enough to remember when art student Tim Sample (ayuh, that Timmy) got cited by the police for painting his ’56 Chevy like an American flag with white stars on the blue hood and front fenders and the rest of the Bel-Air red and white stripes.

Of course, flag etiquette went by the board years ago. Heck, Sarah Palin had a campaign bus painted like Old Glory, and George and Laura Bush stood on an American flag rug at Ground Zero. The flag is supposed to be raised in the morning and lowered at night, but you see flags flying all night all the time and in all kinds of weather these days. Still, if you’re running for office, better get yourself an American flag lapel pin or you’re not a patriot.

Personally, I find outward displays of patriotism meaningless. A person who waves a flag or wears a lapel pin is no more patriotic than a person who doesn’t. A flag is not the country, it’s a piece of cloth. Yes, the American flag is a symbol of America, but these days it’s hard to know which America it stands for: the give-me-your-huddled-masses-yearning-to-breathe-free America, or the build-a-wall America.

I own two American flags. They are the flags presented to our family when my grandfather and father, both veterans, were laid to rest. I salute them – my heroes, not the flags.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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