Won't Somebody Please Think Of The Flag Code?! A Snarky Explainer

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On Sunday, the internet lost its mind after entire teams kneeled or locked arms in solidarity during the national anthem to protest against police brutality and white supremacy. Even Rico Lavell who sang the National Anthem during the Falcons vs. Lions closed out his performance by taking a knee. The act has created two camps of Americans: those who support the players, and those who see their actions as unforgivable, presumably because respecting the U.S. flag is the most important thing a tight end can do on the field.


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I’ve seen a lot of people quoting 36 U.S.C 171-178, that 1942 public law better known as the Flag Code, to support their arguments — either to shake in front of liberals for kneeling, or to shake in front of conservatives and their favorite American-flag MC Hammer pants.

Always salute Rex Kwon Do pants.YouTube/screenshot

On one hand, you have conservatives stating the flag needs to be respected at all times, no matter the politics. Even President Donald Trump has publicly called any football player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be fired.

On the other side, many more liberal veterans have voiced their displeasure with the president and conservative pundits, stating that football players have every right to take a knee in protest, not against a flag or a song, but against what they say is systemic violence under that flag. One might even go as far to say that right is the whole reason for the military to do what it does in the first place.

But how do we know the proper way to treat a flag? The only thing I was ever taught was if a flag touches the ground, you’re to immediately dispose of it by burning. If everyone followed that rule, burning American flags could be an alternative fuel source.

Cram them all into your engine block.YouTube/screenshot

Introducing: The Flag Code

First, let’s start with what the Flag Code is not. It is not legally binding. You can do whatever you want with your flag: Raise it every day or burn it the moment you get it. Maybe people won’t like it, but you won’t get arrested.

The Flag Code is just a set of advisory rules for display and care of the flag. You shouldn’t wad it up in a box and toss it in your basement, for example; that’s just rude, and the wrinkles are hard to get out.

To help you out, here’s a quick primer on what is and isn’t a Flag Code violation.

Mistake No. 1: Getting the right cut to make your flag shirt pop

4 U.S. Code §8(d): The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker's desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

Here’s a question: How can someone spangle their nethers with stars and be respecting the flag?

Just like the Founding Fathers wore.Stance.com

Guess what? That’s not a flag. That’s underwear with some stars, some stripes and some digital camo, for some reason. But it’s not a flag. Here’s the U.S. Code’s 1947 definition of the American flag:

The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field.

(Fortunately, Congress passed a second section in the code that lets you add stars for new states.)

Now, if you got an actual flag and wore it as a cape, or if you, say, cut a hole in the middle of it and wore it like a sarape, then you’d be in clear violation of the Flag Code, and a possible future senator:

Left: American flag desecration. Right: casual evening wear.FeelNumb.com

So since we knocked out what is and isn’t a flag, this also takes care of:

4 U.S. Code §8(i): The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.

So feel free to eat your weight in mediocre barbecue off patriotic plates this Independence Day. The only thing you’re disrespecting is your gastrointestinal tract.

A quick aside: There is a part of the Flag Code that states that if you see a picture or representation of the flag and an average person would say that it represents the flag, then it’s in violation of the Flag Code. But this only applies to the District of Columbia. So as long as you don’t sell patriotic-looking beers in a D.C. convenience store, you’re good.

Mistake No. 2: The display and flappy nature of your flag

4 U.S. Code §8(c): The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

This is a big one you’ll see at your local favorite sports entertainment venue: a massive flag brought out, paraded around, flapped a bit, and then dragged off again.

Go to Flag Code jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.Wikimedia Commons

I can’t even imagine how you fold this monstrosity properly or keep it from getting dragged across the ground. You’re supposed to fly the flag from a pole so it can flap around in the wind and get tangled in the ropes, not so it can tickle the turf and flop over all four pylons before the Saints get demolished.

Forever may she, uh, hang lifelessly akimbo.Courtesy Fox28 Spokane

What you can do is hang the flag from your wall or window. I suggest in the bedroom, so every day you can wake up and respect the flag while you stagger to the bathroom and purge the previous evening’s PBR from your system. Like a real patriot.

Mistake No. 3: Not tucking your flag in for bed and rain

4 U.S. Code §6(a): It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.

All the time with this one. All over my neighborhood, there’s flags out at all hours of the night, and there’s no desire for patriotic effect on Sunday evening when you’re catching up on Game of Thrones.

There are a few places where flags are flown at night. Your porch, illuminated with a bug zapper, is not one of them.

I'm saluting my computer screen right now.Wikimedia Commons

This also leads us to “inclement weather”:

4 U.S. Code §6(c): The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all weather flag is displayed.

I can’t tell you how many times I see American flags all torn up and flapping in the middle of a storm. I get it, no one wants to run down to the historic cemetery and pull down a flag in the middle of a tornado. But don’t call yourself a patriot unless you’re lashing yourself to the pole to make sure that flag is respected.

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The flag, the anthem and the nation all mean something different to everyone. Many have fought for the freedoms we hold dear that are represented by our flag and in the anthem. Those freedoms mean you can boycott the NFL or use an American flag to wash your car. That’s what makes things great in this country. You can burn a flag in front of the president, and you won’t be arrested for desecrating it. (Setting fires inside the White House might trigger a different set of rules, and I do not suggest attempting to find out through trial and error.)

And if you’re like me and too lazy to do everything in the Flag Code, just leave it folded in a drawer and never touch it again. The code, I mean. Fly that damn flag however you want.

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