Not long after Richard Evey began flying an American flag upside down outside his home, one infuriated neighbor called police. Another began making obscene gestures each time he drove past. Then, one night as Evey slept, someone stole up to his front doorstep and snatched the Stars and Stripes from its perch.
Evey, who lives not far from a Marine Corps air station in Havelock, N.C., relishes needling his fellow citizens with a message that the country is headed in the wrong direction. He notes that he carries a .357-caliber Magnum to defend the right to speak his mind. Yet he sounds almost hurt that whoever took his flag might not see his outspokenness is really what Old Glory is all about.
"The flag is a symbol of the freedoms our country was formed for," says the man disdained for disrespecting it. "You see the thing flying and it's gorgeous, it's beautiful."
What is it that stirs Americans' intense, complicated, and sometimes conflicting emotions about our flag? The debate has been going on for much of our history — and as we commemorate our 90th Flag Day Wednesday, it is likely to flare again.
The Senate is moving nearer to a vote on whether to amend the Constitution to ban burning the flag. No matter that flag burning is rare. Defending our national symbol and the values it represents makes for powerful politics, especially in an election year.
If many ordinary Americans would prefer to dismiss the politics wrapped around the flag, it is hardly because they lack strong feelings.
Those feelings are the sum of a thousand mornings, feet planted alongside school desks, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and of lives spent bearing witness to the flag as our national badge of honor.
We watched our heroes plant it on the moon. We wrap them in its folds when they claim Olympic medals. We sheathe caskets in it when the fallen return from battle.
"We have this civil religion that has its own sacraments and icons, and clearly the flag has become one of them," said Jackson Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers University.
At the same time, however, the flag is treated as supremely utilitarian, adaptable for any purpose — as suitable for use on a bikini or an air freshener as on a politician's lapel.
We salute digital images of waving flags before ball games. At Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo., the red, white and blue is beamed onto a geological formation during a subterranean tour. The flag is a Jasper Johns painting, a Bruce Springsteen album cover, the motorcycle helmet worn by Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider."
"Americans really have a very peculiar relationship with their flag," said Markus Kemmelmeier, a social psychologist at the University of Nevada at Reno. Kemmelmeier, who is German-born and came to the U.S. a dozen years ago, has spent much of the time since studying the pervasiveness of the flag and the meanings people attach to it.
"I can't say I've figured it all out," he says.
That may be because there is no one right answer to what the flag means, except that our relationship with it is far more complex than we often realize.
Nothing Short of Love
A shaft of afternoon sun spears the air-conditioned darkness, the stillness ebbing before the rising tide of a choir. "O say, can you see...," the voices ask.
And as eyes blink in the newfound light, a murmur spreads through the small theater at Baltimore's Fort McHenry. A third grader, camera dangling from his neck, stands ramrod straight and presses fingers to the brim of his baseball cap in salute. Hands rise to hearts, and lips form words written about this very place.
A curtain that moments ago covered a wall has drawn back and there, undulating across the sky, is the reason they have come.
"It's more than a piece of fabric," visitor Eric Bacher of Bel Air, Md. says later, squinting up at the 42-by-30-foot expanse of nylon that replicates the original star-spangled banner. "It's hearts and souls and history and hopes and dreams."
For many Americans, it is also nothing short of love.
For Judy Clem of Savoy, Ill., visiting Fort McHenry, the flag takes her all the way back to when she was 8 and her family gathered to bury an uncle, his body returned from battle in World War II, the red, white and blue draped across the casket.
For Stacie Suchodolski, from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., it is the pride, honor and fear of waiting before her fiance returned safe a few months ago from military duty in Iraq.
"I don't want to start crying," she says.
Given the intensity many feel about the flag, it's hard to imagine that for Americans of 200 years ago, it was little more than an afterthought.
Early in our history, the flag flew over forts and federal buildings, but was not widely used. The U.S. Army did not carry it in to battle for 50 years.
"Until the Civil War, the flag was really not all that popular," says Robert Goldstein, author of several books on the flag's history and the debate over its desecration. "People did not fly it in front of private homes. Schools did not fly it. ... It really was not that important."
Even in 1814, when Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" after watching the British fleet shell Fort McHenry, that did not really change. His poem proved popular but was not adopted as the national anthem until 1931.
The war between the states changed things decisively, as Northerners enthusiastically embraced the flag as the symbol of fragile national unity.
"Until now, we never thought about the flag being more than a nice design of red and white stripes," a woman named Nancy Cunningham wrote in her diary at the time, quoted by Goldstein.
In the South, hatred of what the Stars and Stripes represented led to the first recorded burning of a flag — in 1861 in Liberty, Miss.
Only after the war, however, did Americans demand protection for the flag. The threat then was not burning, but advertising. The flag was used to promote magic elixirs and alcoholic beverages, printed on wrappers for cheese and cigars. The first proposed anti-desecration measure came in 1878.
But soon those demanding its protection saw the threat from people who seemed un-American. The flag, critics said, wasn't getting proper respect from labor unions and Communists. As a wave of new immigrants reached the U.S. late in the late 1800s, some doubted their allegiance to the flag.
Meanwhile, women agitating for the right to vote carried the flag in protest — displaying stars only for those states that had passed suffrage laws. Labor leaders urged their workers to take back the flag from employers they claimed had not lived up to its ideals.
"It became a matter of interpretation of who owns the flag," said Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center, a consultant on all things flag-related in Winchester, Mass. "Groups have always used the flag as a way to say we're Americans and our view of America is the right one."
Perhaps that's best seen in a pair of old photographs collected by Marilyn Zoidis, who leads the Smithsonian Institution's efforts to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner. One, taken in 1965, shows protesters, most of them black, holding the flag aloft as they march in Selma, Ala., to demand voting rights. The other, from 40 years earlier, shows white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan parading in front of the White House — each one holding the flag.
"It challenges us to really examine what the flag means and what does it stand for," Zoidis says.
In recent protests by immigrants demanding the right to live and work legally in the U.S., protesters carried the U.S. flag alongside those of the countries of their birth.
Similarly, German-speaking immigrants displayed the flag to show loyalty during the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War I. Americans' patriotic fervor culminated in 1916, with President Woodrow Wilson's proclamation of the first national Flag Day.
World War II added to Old Glory's role as symbol of American strength and goodness — a status enhanced by the AP news photo and later the memorial showing Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.
It took Vietnam to put the flag again at the center of a culture war.
Americans who considered themselves part of President Nixon's "silent majority" affixed flag decals to car windows as emblems of their faith in the nation and its leaders. Protesters seized on the very same flag to symbolize a nation's mistakes.
"It was a patriotism of anger at what the flag had come to represent," says Lears, who was discharged from the Navy in 1970 and turned to protesting the war.
Months after war protesters burned a flag in New York's Central Park in 1967, Congress passed the first federal flag anti-desecration law.
Though that law, and state laws like it, were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1989, debate over how we see the flag has simmered ever since.
Power to Inspire
Today, despite rising public discontent over a new war, the flag still has the power to inspire.
It stirred Scott LoBaido, a New York artist who's working his way across the country, determined to paint Old Glory on 50 roofs in 50 states. He climbed down from atop Steve Giger Auto Sales in Cedar City, Utah, on a recent afternoon, to explain what would make a man do such a thing.
"You know, I'm a New York artist living in America and I, as an artist, have pretty much more rights than anybody in the world because of the First Amendment," he says. The flag "is a work of art, a beautiful work of art."
Many Americans would agree, but that hardly means the flag has lost its power to stir up arguments.
When Brad Sarkauskas set out to draw passing motorists to his tax preparation office in Rib Mountain, Wis., this year, he assigned workers to stand in front dressed as the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam. And he hauled up eight immense banners, each 20 feet long, that blow in the breeze and collectively form the Stars and Stripes.
The town ordered Sarkauskas to take the banners down, labeling them an illegal sign. When a local television station reported the story, people called Sarkauskas to express support, some even offering to pay if he would put the banners back up. Sarkauskas, who acknowledges the original idea was merely to bring in business, has come to see the town's order as antithetical to what the flag — or a grouping of banners resembling the flag — represents.
"That flag stands for the right to display it in eight pieces," says Sarkauskas, who is taking the case to court. "It's not to conform to what the government tells you constitutes a flag or anything else."
That the flag is still so provocative after more than 200 years of neglect, disdain, abuse and reverence is a testament to its permanence in American life regardless of what Congress has to say on the matter.
Johnny Cash expressed that idea in the lyrics of "Ragged Old Flag," a 1974 ode to a nation gripped in the flag-desecration controversy of a generation ago:
"In her own good land here she's been abused,
"She's been burned, dishonored, denied and refused.
"...And she's getting threadbare and she's wearing thin,
"But she's in good shape, for the shape she's in.
"'Cause she's been through the fire before
"And I believe she can take a whole lot more."