Let’s start out by putting a floor under this column.

I was raised to believe that you did not wear the American flag as clothing. The reason my teachers and my parents gave me was that if you had an American flag on your T-shirt, you would eventually spill gravy on the flag. Just as bad, sooner or later, your flag T-shirt would end up in the hamper with the other dirty clothes.

So, if a line of shoes is produced with an American flag on the back, I am not offended by some football player whose name I have never heard. I am offended by the people who make the shoes, and by people who would wear such a thing.

I believe the company has every right to produce the shoe, just as I believe protesters have the right to burn the flag. I wouldn’t buy the shoes, or burn the flag, but I respect the right of others to do these things. In cases like that, all you can hope for is that most people will do neither.

That, of course, is a stupid thing to hope. Thong underwear printed with the flag sells pretty well in this country, and no one would object to a patriotic brewer putting the flag on his beer bottles.

In the weeks after 9/11, people where I live put the American flag on highway overpasses, wiring flags to the chain-link fencing that keeps you from jumping or throwing empty bottles onto the highway.

I watched the flags tear and tatter, rot in the snows of winter and bleach their colors out in the summer until they were rags. It didn’t look like unity, and it didn’t look like respect.

One of the reasons I don’t fly the flag from my house is that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be home one day, and it would start to rain, and the flag would get drenched and hang there, drowned by my negligence. The other reason is that you don’t put the flag on your house; you put it in your heart.

I consider myself to be a “stealth patriot.” I pay the taxes. I obey the laws. I live peacefully in the country where I was born, and I don’t cut people off on the highway. All of that is better than wearing flag underwear.

The flag’s never been anything more than a promise, anyway.

It promises that, while there may be equality and injustice in the country, we will sooner or later be sickened by that equality and injustice, and we will fix the situation.

We will stop lynching you, and we’ll be sorry that we ever did. We’ll stop enslaving you. We’ll see to it that you can vote. And we’ll finally decide that you should be able to marry anyone you want to marry. We’ll eventually stop being “we,” and we’ll be “us.”

We’ll do these things because we know we did wrong. Our principles tell us we did wrong. So does our flag.

If you have been wronged, harassed, discriminated against, held down and dehumanized, look up at the flag. That flag says that somewhere, someone is working to make you free and equal and happy. You may not think so, but someone, somewhere, is looking at the same flag, and thinking of your suffering.

We are meant to become freer and more equal in every generation, forever striving to meet the promise of that flag.

Marc Munroe Dion is an award-winning veteran reporter and Pulitzer Prize-nominated newspaper columnist.

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