What does a flag mean?

In one sense, it is symbolic: the stitched embodiment of a unit of government.

We once had rules to protect that. People knew the proper way to fold and display a flag. This was before manufacturing (and financing) were moved to China.

We see flags, along with paeans to the military and the persistent trope of American Exceptionalism, throughout our day. Left unsaid is that American troops are deployed everywhere in the world, for reasons that never merit congressional or popular approval.

In one sense, they are there to enforce ideological consensus; to quote a former White House flak, “You’re with us or with
the terrorists.”

In another sense, one rarely remarked upon, flags lend themselves to commodification. Just as there is little in the spiritual world that cannot be rendered as product, there is even less in the very temporal world of man and his principalities.

Thus, we go to a football game and see people pull a flag to cover a football field. This is an arresting visual, one intended to call into mind the unimpeachability of American Ideals. That sort of thing was taken for granted decades back, before the money ran out and the educational system collapsed into a heap and the value of one’s work paled in comparison to the cost of healthcare, and myriad other ritualized indignities of a collapsed social order.

Or we see stars and stripes on bathing suits, which would seem to be mass-produced desecrations of the flag (generally made overseas), but which don’t seem to bother anyone much.

Or we open a newspaper, pull out the coupons, and see what’s on offer at a Patriotic Holiday Sale. Open a credit line. Buy crap made elsewhere, with money floated from our enemies, who see us as calves just before the fattening is brought to a halt.

Watch the currency value float, then flutter downward, a feather from a sickly former bird of prey, one that has become prey itself.

The flag is useful for that, too. Its commodification and the collapse of the American Dream have continued apace, toward a universally agreed quasi-sacred state in the post-9/11 era. The debates of whether or not flag-burning is Constitutionally Protected seem hopelessly antiquarian at this point. There is a higher purpose than free speech here. The purpose is to ensure we are all on the same team.

All of that has been a given for so long that, as last week began, I didn’t expect flags to be on my mind when the week ended. However, the story of Code Inspector Melinda Power dropping citations on Jaguar Power Sports (no relation) was a gamechanger.

Power, as has been reported throughout the Anglosphere at this point, dropped citations on the shop for a couple of code violations. Parking vehicles on the city right-of-way, for one, and a display of military flags for another.

The latter, a warning citation, proved bitterly controversial. Flag display etiquette has evolved. Especially in the post-9/11 era; military flags are quasi-national flags. Code may not reflect that.

But incoming comments did.

The comments on everyone’s story excoriated Power, not so much for serving the citation, as for clumsily telling the store proprietor that code was code, regardless of the feelings of a nearby customer who happened to be a wounded veteran. Code inspectors do thankless work, and Power would lose power if she stood down.

Questions of power dynamics, including gender disparities, were on no one’s mind, as people insulted Power’s looks, character, mental state and love of country after reading news reports.

People bombarded Mayor Lenny Curry with emails and calls to fire Power. He suspended her (with pay; there is a union), and tweeted “let them fly” regarding the flags. It was a nice distraction from anything else (something about a local utility, maybe?) that might have been going on here last week.

Meanwhile, there were quiet leaks: a history of code issues with the business, and Power’s excellent job evaluation.

The flags will remain, and someone will have the political sense to write a revision to code that gives military flags parity with national flags. They can lard up the resolution with language lauding our perpetual war footing and the contributions of the military to the region, economically and otherwise.

Meanwhile, the latest “two-minute hate,” a full-force assault on a hapless civil servant just trying to get through her shift, to retirement, will be forgotten. When there’s an opportunity to sound stentorian patriotic themes on social media or wherever, attacks like those on Power are the price of doing business.

Some would say they’re distractions from the end of the American Century, the collapse from within of a nation leveraged out at home and abroad. But who’s listening?