Flag Fever

The flag you see here was just defaced. Before our eyes it unraveled, became riddled with holes, torn and tattered. This happened in our homes. On our TVs. In prime time.

Was it desecrated? To say that puts the flag up there at God’s level. But only you can say what the flag means to you. So you decide.

We wanted to find out who was responsible. We tracked down skillful provocateurs who wanted the nation’s attention and knew that slicing up Old Glory was how to get it. Artful manipulators of symbols to whom a mutilated flag is a mutilated America.

“If we don’t do something now,” said their message, “we’ll destroy our own businesses, our own industry, the very fabric of our nation . . .”

You may be shocked to learn that the American Broadcasting Company not only permitted this defacement but commissioned it from a New York ad agency. The 30-second spot is a public-service message for Project Literacy.

“The flag symbolizes what could happen. over the next several decades unless there’s a concerted effort to upgrade skills among kids coming into the work force,” said John Harr, an ABC vice president. “It’s a metaphor, an allegory for what could happen. The country’s going down the tubes unless we get our act together.”

Harr said it was one of five spots that ABC is running on behalf of Project Literacy. Focus groups looked at all five of them and agreed that the flag spot was the most effective. “Some people wondered if in some parts of the country, if in some rural areas there might be some resentment,” Harr said. There hasn’t been.

“But if someone rules it unconstitutional, we’ll take it off the air,” he told us.

ABC’s safe for now. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court struck down by a five-to-four vote the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which was written to impose criminal penalties on anyone who “knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defouls, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States.” (With one considerable loophole: “Any conduct consisting of the disposal of a flag when it has become worn or soiled” would have been permitted.) The Supreme Court ruled that the Flag Protection Act violated the First Amendment.

Of course, a Supreme Court ruling is no shield against public outrage. In ABC’s case, however, there hasn’t been any, and Ted Charron, the New York City adman who created the spot, thinks he knows why. First of all, Charron told us, the wizardry of TV technology ends the spot on the upbeat, with the tattered flag magically whole again. And the spot’s message isn’t going to rub people the wrong way. “What we’re trying to say is that America is in great danger,” he said. “We’re trying to appeal to the most patriotic people out there by saying now is the time to come to the aid of the country.”

Everybody thinks Americans should be literate. (What’s the point of amending the Constitution if nobody can read it?) It’s when the note of dissatisfaction struck runs contrary to popular attitudes that there’s trouble. Scott Tyler, for example, merely laid a flag on the floor, yet so infuriated local fathers that they wrote a new city ordinance. It wasn’t just Tyler’s medium that made so many people mad; they didn’t like his message. Whatever Tyler was trying to say with his What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?, he clearly was no fan of America.

Also reacting to Tyler, the authors of the Flag Protection Act of 1989 singled out putting a flag on the floor as one of the things you wouldn’t be able to do. Their bill didn’t try to make it a federal crime to dangle a flag from an eight-foot-long black penis. But if that had been the nature of Tyler’s exhibit at the School of the Art Institute, you can bet they would have covered that base, too.

We described the visuals of the ABC commercial to the flag’s best friend in Chicago, state senator Walter Dudycz. “They’re exploiting the flag to make a point,” he said at once, admirably not even bothering to ask who the sponsor was or what the point was.

“We all exploit the flag to make our points,” he went on. “We exploit the flag by waving it on Flag Day. We exploit it by showing our pride. And the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of flag haters to exploit it to show their hatred.”

You’re not going to find a more concise appreciation of the Constitution’s evenhandedness than this. Senator Dudycz is now rolling up his sleeves to change the Constitution.

The Flag Protection Act of 1989 was a product of the general furor that erupted last year after the Supreme Court decided five to four in a Texas case that flag burning was protected speech. In dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that “flag-burning is–the equivalent of an inarticulate grunt or roar that . . . is most likely to be indulged in not to express any particular idea but to antagonize others.”

This would have been a lovely idea to read into the Constitution–that speech is protected only when it is articulate and inoffensive. The grunt of frustration or anger is something you’d make at your own peril. At any rate, Ted Charron has now demonstrated that a flag can be mutilated in the course of communicating a clear, sophisticated, and popular point.

The dissenting opinion in last week’s flag case was a cut above Rehnquist’s. It was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who believes the “value of the symbol” of the flag should be preserved. But does flag burning actually degrade the flag’s symbolic value? Stevens was alert to this crucial questions. He acknowledged that “some thoughtful people” believe burning a flag–an act that owes all its impact to the flag’s standing as our foremost national symbol–actually enhances that symbolism. Stevens, however, thinks these people are wrong.

He drew a curious parallel. “In today’s marketplace of ideas,” he wrote, “the public burning of a Vietnam draft card is probably less provocative than lighting a cigarette. Tomorrow flag burning may produce a similar reaction.”

The draft card was a wallet-size piece of paper that every American male received after he turned 18 and had registered for the draft. The card stated the young man’s draft classification, and he was supposed to carry it with him at all times. From time to time, a young man would be reclassified. Then he’d receive a new card along with instructions to destroy the old one.

Vietnam dissenters who took to burning their cards did not degrade the card’s symbolic value. They invented it. And it was not the dissenters alone who made this trifling piece of pasteboard into something so much bigger than itself; that only happened because the government took the bait–arresting dissenters and putting them in jail. We don’t know why Justice Stevens thinks it worth mentioning that burning a draft card is no longer provocative; the wonder is that it ever was.

The flag, by contrast, comes to the current fray already steeped in symbolism. An overreacting government puts this symbolism at risk. If the flag must be “protected” by abridging the Bill of Rights, then America will be left with neither the flag as it was nor the same Bill of Rights. Instead, we’ll have blessed ourselves with indelible evidence of how we Americans deal with the irritants in our midst. The flag will go on symbolizing certain things, but tolerance will no longer be one of them.

Bold Ideas in Truancy Control

The man of the house had gotten restless.

“I’m outta here,” he said.

“Say what?” said the little woman. The baby was screaming, and she thought maybe she hadn’t heard.

“I’m outta here,” he said. “I gotta be what a man’s gotta be. Don’t take it personal.”

“Gonna leave me high and dry?” she said.

“You got a full house without me,” he said. “If any of the kids ask where Daddy went, tell ’em he’s singin’ the song of the open road.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell ’em that,” she said.

“Anyway, it’s woman’s work, raisin’ kids,” he said. “I never should’ve let you drag me into it. I’ve been pissin’ away my life, and you’re to blame.”

“Then you better go,” she said.

“So I’m goin’,” he said.

“Thanks for nothin’,” she said.

“Give me a kiss,” he said. “It’s a cold world out there.” He grabbed her. “And tell ’em to hit those books,” he whispered. “Tell ’em they won’t be nothin’ without an education.”

“Look who’s talkin’,” she said.

“Yes, sir! They best stick in class if they knows what’s good for ’em.” He was grinning now, backing toward the door. “‘Cause if they don’t, Cecil Partee’s gonna throw their mama’s ass in prison.”

He never called, and he never wrote. She did her best and caught grief all her life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.