American patriotism gone awry

As often happens in crisis times, the nation is “rallying ’round the flag,” conspicuously displaying the Stars and Stripes and turning “God bless America” into a national shorthand for the pride and solidarity the Sept. 11 attacks have produced.

But while much of this patriotism is certainly genuine, the sheer volume of expressions of American pride has begun to strip this outpouring of its meaning. Carelessness by individuals and a rush for profits by corporations have begun to tarnish what some have called America’s finest hour.

The display of the flag, the most visible and popular demonstration of American identity, has become a nuisance in many cases as well-meaning but thoughtless citizens post this venerated American emblem on bridge decks, sew it onto clothing, fasten it into car windows and fly it outside their homes with little concern for how respect ought to be shown to this symbol of the republic.

Title 36 of the U.S. Code contains the official rules for displaying the flag ( ch10.html). For example, the flag is not to be flown at night or in the rain under natural conditions. It should never be allowed to touch the ground, should be allowed to fly or hang freely and should never be used as clothing. Many displays of the flag in recent weeks have disregarded these rules, essentially showing disrespect to the flag and what it represents.

Even more disturbing, however, is the recent rash of commercials exploiting footage of the terrorist attacks and rescue efforts, images of the flag, national songs and patriotic affirmations such as “united we stand” and “God bless America” in thinly veiled efforts to increase corporate profits. This is, of course, nothing new: Every war has seen its share of people and companies seeking their own enrichment as a by-product of the conflict. But the enormity of the attacks, as well as their occurrence on American soil, ought to make even the most ambitious executives see “America’s New War” as something more than fodder for a marketing campaign.

This is not to say, of course, that there is no role for corporations in rallying the nation and providing aid for those affected by the disaster. Those corporations that have given generously to the rescue efforts are as much American heroes as the rescuers diligently working through the rubble. But spending millions of dollars to run a company’s name and logo on television, accompanied perhaps by rescue footage or a ghosted graphic of Old Glory, does nothing to help the nation or those immediately affected by the attacks. Such commercials are shallow, cynical and un-American.

Patriotic expressions, by individuals or corporations, should convey sincere pride and solidarity, or they should not be made at all.