It’s hard to remember what the American flag means when it’s used for everything and sold for $19.95 on late-night television.

The flag has been everywhere in the last three weeks. Sometimes it has been a reminder of America’s best. When weary firefighters raised it over the rubble of the World Trade Center they honored this country with their heroism. Others have done far, far less with the flag.

One firm is selling a package deal of American flags and decals for cars. The late-night television advertisement promises a patriotic steal at the low, low price of $19.95. International terrorists beware.

Locally, Isla Vista Market is selling American flag, disposable lighters for freedom’s cigarette breaks and acts of all-American arson.

On the follicle front, a “freelance hairstylist” put an ad in Monday’s paper seeking “5 male hair models willing to bleach their hair ‘white’ then have the American flag painted on.”

Some prefer the flag on a shirt. If you were out on Del Playa Drive on the right night two weeks ago, you might have seen eight women partying in shirts sporting the words “God Bless America” and the flag. The women celebrated their freedom of choice – some of the shirts had cleavage-revealing v-cuts, while others, more restrained, only exposed the women’s midriffs. It was the perfect attire for a blowout at any one of the DP beer holes that sports a jumbo flag as a party decoration.

If, one of these mornings, you spot someone walking a small dog wearing an American flag dog sweater, you’re probably not hallucinating. That poor dog is actually out there, wearing the flag as a sweater and looking miserable.

Today, Martha Stewart is presenting a guide to homemaker patriotism. On her syndicated show, “Martha Stewart Living,” she will demonstrate the proper etiquette for folding and flying the flag. Stewart will visit the oldest flag-making factory, make an American flag planter and salute “all-American” food by cooking meatloaf, mashed potatoes and cookies decorated with frosting flags – never mind that pizzas, taco salads and pita-bread sandwiches are equally American dishes.

Despite adding to the problem, Stewart was unwittingly correct when she said it’s nice to see the American flag being flown so much since the attacks, but it is obvious people need to know how.

The flag should mean more than a sweater on a dog, a party shirt on a ditz, or a lighter for a cigarette. And it means something entirely different than someone shouting, “Go home, diaper head!” out of their flag-sporting car at an Arabic-looking person.

When the flag is abused like that, it stands not for what we think of America, but for what those who hate America see it as: A bullying country obsessed with consumerism and quick to judge the rest of the world while remaining utterly ignorant of it.

The flag as it was flown over the World Trade Center’s rubble stands for courage, freedom and tolerance. None of those are easy values to maintain and the last two may be especially hard to preserve in the coming days.

Real patriotism requires more than a television, a phone and $19.95.