Last week, the Internet imploded in yet another chapter of the saga over political correctness in patriotism: Is it okay to photograph a newborn wrapped in the American flag? As Fox News reported, U.S. Navy sailor Rodney Clevenger and his wife Samantha approached Vanessa Hicks, a photographer based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with the intent of capturing a patriotic-themed photo of their newborn child. Hicks and the Clevengers, after reviewing similarly-themed photographs on Pinterest, agreed upon a concept: the newborn cradled in Old Glory and held by Clevenger in his uniform. Hicks then posted the photo to her business’ Facebook page on March 8, only to receive thousands of responses. They ranged from supportive to more chilling.
The reactions to the posting of the photo highlight a continued streak of hyper-political correctness and hypocrisy that should not surround Old Glory today.
Just last week, Old Glory caught news headlines when the Legislative Council at the University of California at Irvine voted 6-4 to remove the flag from the sitting lounge of the student government center. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the decision drew the ire of students, locals and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman, who spitefully promised protesters, “We will see even more Stars and Stripes at UCI, as we add additional flagpoles near the campus entrance.”
Backtrack to 2013, when Home and Garden Television’s use of an American flag as a tablecloth in a segment titled “Classic Fourth of July Table Setting Ideas” drew outrage from a small — but loud — group of viewers. “No one dies for a tablecloth,” argued one viewer. HGTV eventually removed the segment and apologized on its Facebook account.
Old Glory was even a point of debate in the 2008 presidential election. In 2007, President Obama spoke on his decision not to wear a U.S. flag lapel pin. He called the pin a “substitute for true patriotism” and said, “I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart.” I disagree with President Obama on many issues, but this is one instance in which I understood his rationale.
When society vilifies people like the Clevengers, this is a problem. When UC Irvine Chancellor Gillman declares that the already budget-strapped institution will spend more on flagpoles, instead of spending on students, this is an even bigger problem. And when the dialogue of our presidential elections revolves around sartorial decisions, this is a problem of a different scale. The symbol of our liberties and successes has also become a symbol of our shortcomings and failures.
It cannot be ignored that the U.S. “flag code” exists: Chapter 1, Title 4 of the United States Code. There is a 14-page 2008 publication by the Congressional Research Service outlining the entirety of Title 4, along with an additional seven pages regarding “frequently asked questions on flag display, use and associated matters.” I quickly skimmed through this document and identified where debate over cases such as the Clevengers’ situation could be aroused. Indeed, under the section entitled “respect for flag,” item (d) states that the “flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery” and goes on to identify other dissuaded practices.
I have an issue, however, with one constant theme throughout the CRS publication: the chronic use of “should.” Take note, the flag code discusses practices around Old Glory that “should” occur. Using Old Glory as a cradle for a newborn baby is not legally prohibited, and neither is using the flag as a drapery — something I have witnessed on at least one dorm window on campus this year. The code also prohibits that the flag’s likeness be printed on anything used temporarily and ultimately discarded.
How many items with U.S. flags printed on them have you purchased? Take a walk into any big-box retailer around the Fourth of July and ask yourself why there is no outcry over the flag’s use in the context of paper plates, napkins, suggestive swimsuits, temporary tattoos and beer cozies.
Certainly, such deviations from the traditional treatment of the flag run contrary to the suggested practices in the code, but if the deviation is positive in intent, why demonize individuals? Why demonize the Clevengers? The recent reaction over a lone artistic interpretation of Old Glory cradling a newborn is absolute hypocrisy. Such innovative displays should unite Americans, not divide them.
I am a proud American. My family has sent relatives into multiple wars to defend our land of opportunity. While my personal opinion may differ from that of others, I believe every American has his or her own unique perspective on what patriotism means. And if the Clevengers choose to express their concept of being American by proudly swaddling a newborn in Old Glory, I say, “Why not?” The U.S. flag has many different receptions around the world — some good, and some not so good — so why do Americans bully one another when those doing the bullying share the same love of our country?
America faces too many other true problems. Policing patriotism doesn’t need to be one of them.
Ian Kenyon GS is public affairs candidate with the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, a supporter of liberty and a proud American. He can be reached at email@example.com.