When we were kids my brother and I were never allowed to have clothes with an American flag on them. According to my mother, flags or even flag-motif patterns were “disrespectful” to Ol’ Glory. I looked into it recently and, guess what? It turns out Mom wasn’t as nuts as we thought she was.

As it turns out, wearing the American flag or even a facsimile of the American flag was once look down upon as distinctly UN-patriotic. Hippies and anti-Vietnam war activists would drape themselves in the flag to “shake up the squares”.

Take a look at this magazine cover:

People Magazine

If your first thought upon seeing that picture is, “Gee, what a patriotic fellow”, then it just goes to show how much things have changed about the way we perceive the flag.

That is 60s “radical” Abbie Hoffman wearing a shirt he was kind of famous for (think of the scene in Forest Gump when Forest addresses the huge crowd of protesters at the national mall. That was supposed to be Abbie Hoffman in a similar shirt bringing him up on stage).

By contrast, we now put the image of the Stars and Stripes on practically everything…paper plates, handkerchiefs, napkins…and I don’t think most people think of it as being disrespectful. To the contrary, most people see the use of such red, white and blue products as the very pinnacle of patriotism. This change in perception probably also goes a long way to explain how Donald Trump can virtually dry-hump a flag on stage and plenty of people who claim to love ‘Murica (wrongly) think it proves that he’s super-duper patriotic.

The basic shalls and shall-nots are contained in the U.S. Flag Code. It says, among other things:

  • “The flag shall never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery”

Yeah, try going to Walmart this week and count the number of flag themed items. That includes American flag napkins which, so we’re 100% clear, are designed specifically for you to wipe the baked beans off your food hole and then thrown in the trash! For patriotism!

  • “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.”

Maybe someone should notify the NFL that it is they, and not Colin Kaepernick, who are in actual violation of the flag code. Of course, this is the same organization that puts on grand patriotic displays for which they overcharged the actual military.

And, just in case you’re in the camp that believes this was only intended for actual flags on not material made to look like a U.S. flag the code says this:

  • “The flag…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”.

So, it seems pretty clear that they’re not just talking about actual flags but also anything made to LOOK like a flag.

But, seriously, how much trouble could you get into for using a flag product like the aforementioned? The fact that Wal-Mart hasn’t been shut down by the DoD and the Walton family placed in detention at Guantanamo Bay seems to argue, “not much”. On the other hand, a report from the 1972 Washington University Law Quarterly notes that people have been prosecuted for wearing the flag as “a vest, a shirt, a poncho and a cape”. A court ruling in 1989 established the burning of an American flag as a protest to be protected as free speech by the First Amendment. But the case in question, Texas v. Johnson, doesn’t say anything about wiping mustard from your jowls and then tossing it into a rubbish can so you might still be breaking the law. Technically.

Also, for what it’s worth, the Flag Code doesn’t say anything about a chief executive hugging and caressing a flag like it’s a 25 year old Apprentice contestant on the wrong side of an locked office door but I assume that’s only because they never in a million years thought such a rule would be necessary.

Happy Independence Day!