Constable: Anyone can wave a flag, but true patriotism demands more
People celebrating the holidays of Memorial Day, Flag Day and Independence Day often found ways to irk the patriotic spirit in my old columnist friend Jack Mabley. Enlisting in the Navy on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jack served as an officer in Guam during World War II and was a patriot in every sense of the word. And, yes, the freedoms and liberties represented by the flag and our national anthem were important to Jack.
Often at this time of the year, I'd arrive at my desk in the newsroom on a Monday morning to find the latest affronts that Jack (or more likely his wife, Fran) had found among the Sunday newspaper advertisements -- red-white-and-blue napkins that looked like our flag, toothpicks with tiny stars and stripes affixed to them, and an assortment of garish beach towels, shorts, umbrellas, bikinis and even toilet seats that looked as if they had been fashioned out of Old Glory.
Jack, who died in 2006 at age 90, noted that even my jersey for the T-ball team I was coaching at the time violated the Flag Code (U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8(j)), which reads, "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform."
While guilty of bad taste in most cases, no one ever gets charged with violating the flag code. And our Supreme Court protects people who use the flag in exercising their First Amendment rights. Jack appreciated the irony of radical Yippie Abbie Hoffman being arrested in 1968 for wearing a shirt that resembled a U.S. flag, and Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wearing an almost identical shirt to a 2005 Memorial Day tribute to our veterans. Timing is everything. In 1897, Illinois passed one of the nation's first flag-desecration laws -- not to stop flag-burners, artists or protesters, but to stop merchants and politicians from using the flag as a gimmick to sell a candidate or a beer.
There are no laws to protect "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's always bothered me that our nation, home of the Blues, jazz, country and hip-hop, saw fit to steal a British melody for our national anthem. Based on a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, the lyrics express the author's bewilderment that our forces hadn't surrendered to the Brits bombarding Fort McHenry. Should the song that sums up our nation really end with a question about whether we are still around?
Coping with the fallout from the Civil War, which answered that question about whether the United States still existed, the U.S. military started using the song to accompany the raising and lowering of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order declaring the song "the national anthem of the United States," and Congress did likewise 15 years later. The song made the leap from military bases to sporting events in 1918 in Chicago, during the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, as the Allies were moving toward victory in World War I.
Politicians and protesters have used the anthem, too.
In 1968, U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith, who won gold in the 200-meter sprint, and John Carlos, winner of the bronze, used the anthem and flag to make a statement so powerful that statues of them doing so are on display in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Receiving their medals, they took off their shoes to protest poverty, wore a scarf and beads around their necks to protest lynchings, bowed their heads and raised their fists in a Black Power salute, accompanied by the raising of the flag and the playing of the anthem.
Some singers use the anthem as a stunt to see how long they can hold a note. Roseanne Barr once infamously screeched the song and ended by grabbing her crotch and spitting. It's a big country and the flag and the anthem don't have to spur the same reaction in every American.
But if you want to be really patriotic, follow Jack Mabley's lead. He voted, campaigned for worthy candidates, worked for his local park district, served a 4-year term as mayor of Glenview, started the "Forgotten Children's Fund," exposed injustice, fought to make America better for everybody and is best described in this quote by his dear friend Studs Terkel: "Anybody can wave a flag, that's easy, but to understand what the country is, and fight to make it just and equitable when it is not, that's Americanism."