Old Glory, in its various permutations, means many different things these days

Partriots flew the flag during President Bush’s recent visit to Sacramento.

Partriots flew the flag during President Bush’s recent visit to Sacramento.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Gawf, who lives in Portland, Oregon, is a former SN&R contributor and cartoonist.

Before 9-11, a flag outside of Fourth of July meant you were a certain kind of person. Now, every Jane, Dick and Harry has got a flag. Some of the people who before wouldn’t be caught wrapped in a flag are now out there waving them like there’s no yesterday.

It used to be such a helpful thing. A flag flying in the front yard was like a label showing what kind of person lived there, so other people would know whether to go on over and start a conversation, or drive down a different street.

Coupled with other clues, you could draw a few conclusions. If you noticed a large pickup truck parked out front with a gun rack in the back window, then you’d start imagining that they had a fully stocked basement extending beyond the house all the way out to the property line. Probably with 800 cans of Spam, 900 boxes of mac and cheese, and a thousand packs of Jell-O.

On the other hand, the occupant could be one of those old WWII types with that wholesome kind of patriotism people had before everybody got all cynical from the Vietnam War. Or, flag-in-the-yard syndrome could just mean that the people were way far over on the Republican end of things.

But how can you tell who’s who anymore? It ain’t easy, but it can be done. And it should be done, because today’s flagness means a lot more things than outlined above.

If you observe carefully, you’ll notice subtle differences in the flag and waving styles people choose. Besides showing what kind of people they are, how Americans fly their flags can tell you how fervently they support the war.

For example, have you noticed that flags seem a little larger than they used to be—like, ever, in your entire life? Well, you’re right. That’s because the people who were waving the flags all along are now having a flag contest.

So, size of flag is one clue. The flag-waving types from before are now playing “My flag is bigger than your flag.” Why would size be an issue?

Well, if a person was already flying a flag before and now everyone’s doing it, the flag-waving person would now have to find a way to maintain his position as an in-your-face patriot. Or I guess we could drag out tired old Dr. Freud and suggest that they’re compensating for lack of size in other areas.

Sometimes the flag is as big as an entire office building. In the case of car flags, sometimes they’re even bigger than the cars. I, for one, hope somebody is keeping track of the number of Americans killed by huge flags erected in back of pickup trucks that become dislodged and fly back into oncoming traffic. And let’s add in the number of accidents caused by the obscuring of vision by those flag posters on car windows.

Which brings us to our next clue: the words or figures overlaid upon car window flag posters, like “Proud to be an American” or some similar patriotic platitude written right on the flag. Isn’t that a bit overstated? Why else would you be displaying the flag in the first place? That would be like the Pope wearing a sign on the Popemobile that said “Proud to be a Catholic.”

Then there’s the stolen flag. What, can’t criminals be patriotic, too? Some people are so patriotic that they will steal from their fellow citizens for a chance to express it. Well, flags were really scarce the week after the attacks. What’s a patriot to do?

Besides, those flags can be darned expensive—at least if you’re going to insist on one that’s made in the States. Which brings us to the most perplexing of the flags: the Made-in-China flag. Or Bangladesh, Malaysia, or Thailand or any of those other places to which we farm out our manufacturing needs in our continuing mission to provide people all over the world with menial jobs.

Imagine you lost your job at the flag factory because your company decided to contract overseas. The economy is sluggish, but the flag industry is the one industry that’s really booming, and you can’t get your old job back because you’re not Chinese. That must be hard on a person.

Low-key people are putting a small, understated flag decal way down in the corner of their car windows. Or just wearing a tiny flag lapel pin. Or when the flag is just too much, how about just a humble little red-white-and-blue scrap of ribbon stuck on with a safety pin?

The anti-jingoistic granola-headed people, who before would never even think of flying the flag, might now venture a flag windsock by their front door. In the ’70s, it would have been a green-and-blue sock in the shape of a fish or something. Now it’s a red-white-and-blue sock in the shape of a fish or something.

So, why the flag-o-rama? Why now? If you’re a member of any group, and the group is attacked from outside, the members of the group get closer, even those who before didn’t even like each other. After an attack, group members tend to pick a symbol and start flashing it around, saying things like, “Take that, you slimes! Just try that again and see what happens!”

We’ve been attacked, and since we were attacked as a country, we’ve grabbed our handiest symbol: the flag. But some of us aren’t too comfortable with that because historically flags have had pugilistic connotations. Maybe it’s because of all the paintings and photographs we’ve seen showing individuals holding up flags while running through scenes of carnage.

But we have to hold up something, because this is a scene of carnage, dammit! Those of us who fervently don’t want war feel a certain unwillingness to take up a warlike symbol. So we think that if we hold up something else, smaller, or of a different shape, but of the same colors, so that other people will know what we’re referring to, it’ll be a statement, but not a statement of war.

We’ll be making grave but calm statements like, “This has been a really, really bad thing,” and, “We are thinking every minute about all the people who were killed and their survivors,” and, “Could we please stay calm and not blow up the entire planet?” or “I love my country, but I love the world even more.”

U.S. government, please take note: Don’t be misled by the sheer number of flags or flag-like symbols you see. Just because the nation is festooned in red, white and blue doesn’t mean we’re all on the war wagon. Don’t presume that behind every red-white-and-blue something, there is a Rambo salivating for the kill. If you can’t eliminate the small number of psychotics that perpetrated these acts, please don’t assume that you have our support in killing a bunch of humans who are just like us to make up for it.

A flag does not a nation make.