Stale Content Alert!
This post was written a long time ago, and my views have almost certainly evolved since then. Please keep that in mind while reading, commenting, or sharing.
Spencer’s really pretty fired up right now, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The topic of the day? Flag burning, and the people who are trying to put a Constitutional end to it.
I’ll start with an unnecessary clarification. I’m talking about this flag:
I’m referring to the Star-Spangled Banner. Old Glory. The Stars and Stripes. Whatever name you wish to call it, I’m talking about the flag of the United States of America.
Let’s examine the symbolism in this flag’s design. The stars represent states in the current Union– one star for each state. The bars, red and white, stand for the 13 original colonies, from which the country grew to what it is today.
As a symbol in itself, the flag is most generally used to represent liberty and justice for all.It stands for the visions of freedom that the founding fathers had when they established the country.
At least generally. Today, regrettably, the flag has become almost exclusively a trademark of the American Republican party, flying it almost a guarantee that the flier follows the conservative mindset. This dominance of the flag has severely tainted its symbolism, and it is a downright shame that it is such associated.
But I digress.
Burning the American flag is, obviously, a rather blatant form of protest. It is generally used to protest what is considered violations of the beliefs of the founding fathers– in essence, to demonstrate that what the flag stands for is going up in smoke. The Supreme Court has ruled twice that defacing a flag (which extends to burning it) is completely covered by the First Amendment. It was first ruled in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and reaffirmed in U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990). While it is an act that many find shocking or disturbing, it is an act protected under free speech.
But if some people have it their way, it won’t be for very long.
There has been efforts in Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit “desecration of the flag of the United States.” The full text of the proposed amendment reads as follows:
The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.
This is an extraordinarily bad idea.
For starters, it goes against two previous Supreme Court rulings. There has been a lot of this recently, and it is a sign of distress for our nation– the three-house system was established in order to prevent any one branch from holding too much power. The Supreme Court should be able to check and balance the judiciary branch’s power, and it does so, at least somewhat, through its rulings. The Congress’s disregard for these rulings is disturbing, to say the least.
My problem, however, is the cult that has seemed to grow around the flag. It has almost become a symbol of worship for some people, and that seriously bugs me. People react to flag-burning as though instead of a piece of cloth being burnt, it’s the Constitution or all the people who’ve died defending the country.
This is ridiculousness. The flag is a symbol. Though many seem to have forgotten it, destroying a symbol does not destroy what the symbol stands for.
Above is the almost-universally accepted “male” symbol. As I’m sure you know, it stands for men.
If I were to print this symbol out and with one clean cut of my scissors, decapitate it, what would happen? Would billions of males across the world suddenly lose their connections to their heads? (I mean physically. Many already have lost the mental connection.) Would men cease to exist? Would masculinity be suddenly erased, leaving only females and gender-neutral ex-men?
Of course not. One piece of paper would be turned into two smaller pieces, my scissors would get fractionally duller, and with my luck, I’d end up nicking my finger and having to rush to a nearby bathroom or medicine chest to stop the bleeding. I would still, however, have my cranium, my masculinity (both physical and incorporeal, though the latter is sometimes debatable), and my existence, as would the other three billion-some male humans of the world.
If symbols were actually physical embodiments of the ideas they represented, the outcome in that situation would be dreadfully different, and one clumsy kindergartener could effortlessly change the course of human history with a pair of plastic safety scissors. Luckily for us, you would be hard-pressed to find a pair of safety scissors that have changed the world, or that will do so.
The American flag stands for freedom, for liberty, for democracy, for any other noun you could care to fit in there. It can also represent those honored men and women who have so bravely given their lives to defend the country. (It also, should you really care to be nit-picky, signifies the 50 states and the 13 original colonies, though I doubt you’ll find many people who protest flag-burning for the desecration of those ideas.) Old Glory can represent all of these things, yet many seem to forget that it is not these things. Burning the Stars and Stripes does not set a blaze to freedom. (It’s too often on the march to catch fire.) Setting a torch to the Star-Spangled Banner does not instantaneously cremate the honored dead whose remains are laying in the ground. The ashes of an American Flag are not the ashes of the Bill of Rights.
The importance of a symbol is its immortality. I may decapitate all the restroom signs I wish, but that symbol will still say “male”. After 2006 years, give or take, the symbol of a cross still represents Christianity, Jesus’ love, and divine self-sacrifice. The ankh, an Egyptian symbol of life that was often portrayed as held by gods, is still used today to stand for both certain aspects of life, and magic. Though countless numbers of these symbols must have been lost in fires, earthquakes, to the sea or otherwise destroyed or desecrated, they and their meanings remain.
The amendment that these people are trying to pass does not do anything to preserve the honor of the flag. By attempting to ban its destruction or disgrace, they are giving the flag mortality. They are saying that the flag cannot stand being abused, that it must be protected in order for its message to persevere. In their crusade to protect the American flag’s honor, they are dishonoring what it is and what it stands for.
This ban is ridiculous in more ways than that, however. The proposed amendment is remarkably devoid of detail. Obviously, its proponents don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they’re explicitly seeking to ban flag burning, because that would be too outright for them. However, let’s look at the text of the amendment again:
The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.
Physical desecration, hmm? Well, we all know what they’re trying to limit. But isn’t “physical desecration” a little prohibitive? What about these?
Many of the same people that would have “desecration of the flag” banned fly these sort of things on their cars. Most of us have seen them, flying down the highway with their stars and stripes blowing proudly in the wind.
But often, these symbols of “patriotism” are forgotten by their owners. 60 miles per hour of highway air tend to reduce them to soiled, frayed tatters after a few months. That is, if the winds don’t rip them off their plastic poles to flutter to the roadway, where they’re ground into the pavement by thousands of other cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, and ungodly huge combat vehicles converted unnecessarily to be fit for civilian use, to the disregard or ignorance of their owners.
How, praytell, is that any less of an offense than the intentional burning of the flag? As Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” While that was intended towards those who did nothing while the Holocaust of World War II occurred, the sentiment is quite true universally. People who “hate” the flag by burning it are not unlike those who “love” it by flying it on their doorstep. Both care for the country, albeit possibly in different ways. The burner wishes to inspire change and restore what he sees as lost honor and dignity to the nation by making a very loud, shocking statement. The flag-flyer at home loves his country, and flies his flag to show he is content, if not proud, of the way it is. There is care in each of these people’s hearts. Care is lacking in the hearts of those who let their made-in-China window flags get desecrated by their morning commute.
Would the self-righteous “patriots” that fly their flags so proudly on their vehicles of choice and then buy replacements at Wal*Mart when they become unsightly or mysteriously vanished be targeted by the powers this amendment would grant Congress? I’m willing to bet not. While those protesters that burned the flag in a town square would probably be arrested and sent to prison or whatnot, the bumper-sticker patriots would most likely get off scot-free.
The amendment also says quite clearly that Congress will be able to prohibit the desecration of “the flag of the United States.” This would quite cleanly put an end to people burning the flag I pictured above. But as is, this would be very ineffective at stopping flag-burners.
Why? Simple. The U.S. flag follows some very rigid specifications. If a piece of cloth doesn’t follow those specifications, then it’s technically not an American flag. Take, for instance, the following images:
(Images courtesy of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog)
Can you see what sets all three of these flags apart from the official American flag? If you can’t, then look again as I point them out. The first flag has a dot instead of a star. The second one doesn’t have white bars– they’re grey! And the third isn’t red, white and blue– it’s orange, white, and green! Three cheers for the orange, white, and green!
If someone was burning a flag with slightly orange stripes instead of red, would you bother to notice the difference? No, it’s functionally identical to the flag we’re all used to. You can tell what it is and what it stands for, regardless of whether it’s orange or red.
The proposed amendment wouldn’t do anything about burning these flags. It would utterly fail at preventing those who would burn star-spangled banners from expressing their message. If for some reason, the judicial powers decided that flags that looked similar to the U.S. flag could not be burnt– then those who wanted to protest Liberian or Malaysian goings-on here in America would be the victims of an unfortunate side effect. This amendment would be totally useless at ending flag burning, unless it restricted the freedoms of other people as well.
Symbol burning isn’t limited to those crazy hippies, either. There’s a little group down in the South called the Ku Klux Klan. They’re rather notorious for their symbol of the burning cross. Certainly, this offends people– statistically, it should offend more people than a burning flag– yet nobody’s tried to do anything to end it? Why is this? Well, it most certainly couldn’t be because burning or desecrating symbols, though undoubtedly offensive, is protected under the First Amendment, could it? If the Conservatives pass this amendment, the lot of which have aligned themselves with the Religious Right, then they’re putting themselves in quite a hypocritical predicament, breaking the rules to please themselves in one hand, while admitting that they can’t break the rules by remaining utterly oblivious in the other.
It’s a funny thing, actually. The Republican party is very quick to toss the word “freedom” in its salad of pleasure phrases and core values, yet try as I may, I cannot see how this amendment, supported quite heartily by Republicans, could be painted as protecting or increasing freedom in any way. It is quite obviously a direct cross of the First Amendment, which is a cornerstone on which most of our freedoms are based. You don’t even need to know about the Constitution to realize that telling someone they can’t do something certainly doesn’t make them more free. Certainly, not every law or concept uttered by the Grand Old Party has to be about freedom (that’s the liberals’ turf– I kid! I kid!), but for as much that they make out of that ever-marching ideal, it’s almost surprising that their words are nothing more than hot air.
Finally (and I’m sure you’re all sighing with relief at that word), there’s the issue of necessity, or the lack thereof. Why on earth do Americans treat their flag like a badge of honor? What ungodly reason is there for us to so blatantly flaunt our flags on car windows and clothing, on front porches and fenders? When German exchange students came to Rex Putnam earlier this year, they told my class that they didn’t fly flags or say a pledge of allegiance because it was too much like Nazi Germany. As user “13strong” posted on John Scalzi’s aforementioned blog:
Being from Scotland, I’m always amazed about the amount of concern and attention directed at the US flag by US citizens. Believe me, nobody in this country gives a rat’s arse what people do to their flags. People don’t fly St Andrews crosses out of their windows/cars/offices/trousers. They sit on top of castles (although, I guess you guys don’t have those…), and that’s pretty much it. I think there’s one outside the Scottish Parliament.I realise, for US citizens, the US flag is a symbol of freedom, justice, equality, yada yada yada. But don’t you realise how often those principles are violated in the US, or by the US in other countries? What’s infinitely more offensive than burning a piece of material that symbolises your country’s principles is the fact that those principles themselves are so often violated, with proportionally less uproar and public outrage than is given to flag-burning.The other irony being that flags are usually burnt in protest against the violations of the principles which the flag represents…
What on EARTH is so goshdarn special about our flag? More importantly, why aren’t people so concerned about the message that flag-burners mean to send by torching the banner? If Old Glory is important as a representation of freedom, why don’t the same people that wish to end its burning do anything about the violation of the ideals it represents? They’re more concerned with the cloth going up in smoke than the symbolism of the burning symbol, the message that the ideas that the flag stands for are going up in smoke.
Regrettably, this amendment almost passed recently, with one vote keeping it from doing so. One vote. That is pathetic. Passing this amendment would be a terrible restriction on Americans’ constitutional rights, and things would only go downhill from there. When free speech becomes almost-free speech, what’s to keep them from redefining “desecration of the flag”? The ambiguity of the statement is disturbing. It could mean burning now, but powers could later redefine it as speaking out against the flag. “The flag” could also be interpreted the same way as “the crown” can– a term used to represent the entire government. If this amendment passes, what keeps them from limiting protests further and further, until all dissent is crushed?
You can’t remain indifferent to this. This is a serious issue, and it will affect the life of every American should the amendment pass. Write to your congresspeople. Tell them firmly and vehemently– as well as politely and civily– what you think. Find like-minded people, and talk to those who disagree. We still live in a democracy, which means that the people can make change happen.
Don’t let them take that away from you.