We Have Lowered Our Standards On The Lowering Of Our Standard
Even as I write this I know I'm swimming against the tide and shouting into the wind, but I'm old so indulge me.
I went into a McDonald's the other day, noticing as I entered that the flag was flying at half-staff in front of the restaurant but not at any of the neighboring businesses. Pretty sure of the response I'd get, I nevertheless asked the teenage counter person why. I was not disappointed: she had no idea. “Let me ask my manager.” When the manager came forward she was similarly clueless. “I don't know,” she said. “I just got an email from corporate telling me to lower it.”
Traditionally, lowering the nation's flag to half-staff (or half-mast if aboard a naval vessel) is a mark of honor and a symbolic gesture of solidarity in mourning. But how can you have a gesture of solidarity when no one knows anymore what that gesture symbolizes? In this modern day and age of nearly weekly bombings, mass shootings, and other insane acts of violence, we find ourselves hauling Old Glory halfway down the pole on a frighteningly regular basis. And unfortunately, at some point it becomes meaningless.
The first time I actually remember seeing the Stars and Stripes flying at half-staff was in the thirty days after November 22, 1963. I'm sure it was similarly lowered for the death of former Vice-President Alben W. Barkley in 1956, but I was far too young to remember that. The point is, it used to be that when you saw the flag flying at half-staff, you knew why: a president, vice-president, senator, governor, or some other highly-placed and highly-regarded government figure had died.
Or maybe it was Memorial Day. That was the McDonald's manager's guess: it must have had something to do with Memorial Day. Except, as I pointed out to her, Memorial Day was last week and in any event, the flag is only supposed to fly at half-staff on that day until noon. When I suggested that perhaps it was in reaction to a recent mass shooting in Virginia, she agreed that that was likely the reason. Except we weren't in Virginia.
But that doesn't seem to matter anymore. Nowadays if somebody dies – if anybody dies – anywhere in the country, especially if they do it en masse, down comes the national banner. Think I'm exaggerating? Uh-uh. Remember the flag being lowered when singer Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathtub? Or when baseball great Yogi Berra passed? Or how about upon the death of that great American statesman, Nelson Mandela? Oh......wait. My favorite instance was when the honor was afforded to a recently deceased Ohio police dog. Or maybe it was the Oklahoma road worker who died while helping to fill a sinkhole.
The United States Flag Code, as adopted by the National Flag Conference held in Washington, D.C. on June 14-15, 1923, and revised numerous times over the years, has this to say about flying the flag at half-staff:
The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.
On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff.
By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.
In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation.
The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.
Did you see anything in there about celebrities or dogs? Or even victims of mass murders? I suppose the “in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law” provides the loophole there.
Anyway, after the questions raised at McDonald's, I looked it up: yes, indeed, a Presidential Proclamation was issued “honoring the victims of the tragedy in Virginia Beach” and directing the flag to be lowered from June 1 until sunset on June 4. But where do you draw the line? As I have only somewhat facetiously opined, considering the nearly constant state of mourning in which we find ourselves today, perhaps half-staff should become the default position and we could then celebratorily raise the flag to the top of the pole to note the increasingly rare occasion in which somebody or some group of somebodies didn't die violently or tragically.
And then there's the matter of participation. Okay, so McDonald's corporate got the memo and passed it along. But the hotel next door and the auto parts store across the street didn't get said memo and so their flags remained at the top of the staff. The flag at the post office is down but the flag at the gas station is up. The flag at the bank is lowered but the one at the funeral home is not. And if anybody ever tried to lower that massive banner that flies proudly over the automobile dealership out by the interstate they would likely create a traffic hazard, so that flag stays all the way up regardless of circumstance. It definitely makes for a mixed message. And what about you folks at home and the flag you fly on your front porch? Yes, there are ways to rig it to fly at an approximation of half-staff, but do you bother?
And at what point does the gesture become meaningless? According to an Associated Press analysis, in 2015, the flag of the United States flew at half-staff somewhere in the country for 328 of 365 days. At what juncture does the “honor” become so commonplace as to lose its significance? The short answer to that question is when nobody knows why the flag is at half-staff on a given day to begin with and I think we've already reached that point.
The problem is jerky knees. Somebody dies heroically or tragically and the immediate emotional knee-jerk reaction is to “honor” them. And the quickest, cheapest, and most expedient way to do that is to drop the flag a few feet down the pole. There. All nice and neatly honored and we can move on to the next tragedy. Which will likely occur next week. Unless the local dogcatcher – “who served our community proudly for fifty-seven years” – dies in the interim. Down goes the flag.
I say all this because I am an admitted flag-nazi. (Oxymoron? Perhaps.) I'm the guy who calls your business and demands that you remove that tattered pink, beige, and periwinkle remnant of what was once a proud flag from the pole in front of your store and replace it. I'm the guy who sicced the American Legion on a little group of Bible-thumpers who flew the so-called “Christian flag” above the American flag on the pole in front of their church. I'm the guy who stopped in a driving rainstorm to lower a flag that had torn away from one of its grommets and was unceremoniously and disrespectfully streaming loose in the wind in front of a local store. I'm the guy that will let you know if your state or business flag is an inch bigger than your American flag and if it's flying a quarter of an inch higher. I don't care that the flag code was long ago revised to allow a flag to be displayed in the rain as long as it is an “all weather flag.” Poppycock! You'll never catch my flag out in the rain. Or in the dark, either. My flag means something to me beyond being an ostentatious bit of pseudo-patriotic décor that I tack up and forget about. I respect it and what it stands for and that's why I refuse to support the current politically correct and emotionally driven trend toward turning it into a red, white, and blue yo-yo.
And by the way, did you know that Flag Day is next week? And do you care? Or is it just an irrelevant leftover from a bygone day when the flag, its origins, and its meaning truly mattered? My flag will be out and at full-staff, thank you, unless there is a recognized, legitimate reason for it to be otherwise. (Death of a president, vice-president, governor, etc.) And if some brownie-point-seeking politician tells me to lower my flag to “honor” the passing of a Nigerian dwarf goat at the National Zoo or something, I think I'll just bring it in instead.
The flag is often referred to as our “national standard.” I think perhaps we have lowered our standards on the lowering of our standard just a bit too much.