The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America

Thomas Sugrue writes:

In the United States the flag has the status of a religious icon, a totem. It cannot be carried horizontally or flat, but must always be ‘aloft and free’. There is a protocol for folding it, it can’t touch the ground, it can’t be burned except when it is worn out or irreparably damaged and then only as part of a special ritual. Military men and women salute it, civilians hold their right hands over their left breasts when singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it. It is also a ubiquitous presence in the American landscape. The Red, White and Blue waves from people’s porches, flies over car dealerships and gas stations and adorns flower-pots; cars are festooned with it in the form of bumper stickers, window decals and antenna pennants. The flag decorates the altars of churches of every denomination except those of a few dissenting sects. And it has become a necessary accessory for political candidates. Early in his campaign, Barack Obama was criticised for his unpatriotic failure to display a flag lapel pin: as president-elect he now regularly wears one.

(LRB 20 November 2008)