“This 4th of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom, by flying the flag”
-- George W. Bush, Fort Bragg address, June 28, 2005
“If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents.”
-- Jerrold Nadler (D-New York)
“Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they're red, white and blue. And when the band plays ‘Hail To The Chief,’ oh, they point the cannon at you, Lord”
-- John Fogerty, “Fortunate Son”
It’s odd that Congress would pass a bill banning flag burning on the same week that reports confirmed the US military used napalm in Iraq. Apparently, it’s alright to incinerate Iraqis, but not okay to burn a 5’x7’ piece of tri-colored cloth.
For the Republican faithful, the action was just another cynical demonstration of feigned patriotism meant to divert attention from an increasingly bloody war. Only a handful of these uber-nationalists ever served a day in uniform so they try to limit their loyalty to meaningless displays of political buffoonery. No one believes for a minute that any one of these stuffed shirts would ever venture into an angry crowd to save Old Glory from the torch. They’d rather pontificate from the safety of the House, where their high-flown rhetoric can be mistaken for courage.
If the Congressman were sincere in their regard for the Bill of Rights they’d honor the basic tenets of the First Amendment: (that) “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech”; a clear defense of unpopular forms of expression, like flag burning. Instead, they choose to ignore the principle behind the icon and flaunt their ignorance like a badge of honor.
The Supreme Court got it right in a 1989 ruling that settled the issue of flag burning: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.”
The Court decided that flag burning was “symbolic speech” and was protected under the First Amendment. The act, however offensive, belongs in the same category as “virulent ethnic and religious epithets, vulgar repudiations of the draft, and scurrilous caricatures.”
Unfortunately, the Congress is so subsumed in the prevailing culture of chauvinism and religious zealotry that our founding principles have been tossed on the slagheap and replaced with a hard-right ideology and empty proclamations of devotion. As the polls indicate, Congress has devolved into little more than a staging ground for the regular emission of hot gas from windy politicos.
The flag burning issue is mainly a way for puerile congressman to entertain themselves while the matters of state are conducted by an iron-fisted White House. Nevertheless, freedom of expression is central to our constitutionally protected civil liberties and should be taken seriously. And, besides, maybe it takes a smoldering flag or two to wake up a somnolent nation.
“The flag,” Einstein wrote, “is proof that man is still a herd animal.” We gather around these tribal symbols to identify ourselves with the gaggle of humanity, excluding “the other” as a vital threat to our survival. Entire industries (public relations) evolve in order to harness this fear of external threats and exploit it for their own purposes. The Bush Administration has been particularly astute at marshalling the dormant energy of terror and putting it to use in carrying out its radical agenda. As America’s center has shifted, so too its symbols have been transformed by the policies. Now, an American flag on the lapel of a sports coat immediately pigeonholes one as a hard-right ideologue or a “Ditto-head”. Similarly, an American flag bumper sticker identifies one as a Bush supporter as surely as a “yellow ribbon” car magnet. In other words, the flag has lost its original meaning and no longer includes the values of all the people. It is entirely the province of Christian fundamentalists, neocons, super-nationalists, and warmongers.
Let’s face it, the flag is Bush and Bush is the flag.
Democrats vehemently refute this, but it is true nonetheless. The principles that may have imbued the flag with some real meaning have long since disappeared. Five years of Bush have transformed a perfectly decent bit of weaving into a menacing symbol of brute force and intolerance. The question isn’t whether someone has the right to burn the flag but, rather, who really cares if they do?
No reasonably decent individual would ever defend a banner that waves over torture camps like Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. So, why should we take the provincial attitude that the flag is still sacrosanct?
It’s not. It has morphed into the mottled image of its corporate owners: a ruddy, savage emblem of marching armies, windowless jail cells, and sneering, well-groomed men in blue suits.
The flag has become a stage prop for executive speechifying, a tawdry backdrop for Bush’s war-oratory. It’s become a companion for fatuous politicians who think that valor can rub off through proximity or osmosis. It’s morphed into a blood-splattered pennant waved in front of high school boys, drawing them to the killing fields in Iraq and Afghanistan; a bloody shroud that cloaks the national idol of aggressive war. It’s become a beacon of dwindling freedom, hanging limply behind the concertina wire and cement abutments at the White House fortress.
This isn’t your flag anymore, or mine. Perhaps, we should just burn it and preserve the memory.
The stars and stripes no longer fly over “purple mountains majesty or fruited plains,” but over the warlord dominated drug colony in Afghanistan and the battered Green Zone ramparts in occupied Iraq.
The flag has fallen from its once lofty perch and merged with the sludge of corporate profiteering, calculated sadism and pre-emptive war. No dousing of gasoline could ever compare to the disgrace brought on by Bush’s laser-guided munitions, messianic proselytizing, and orgy of carnage.
In such times, flag burning becomes the ultimate form of non-violent dissent, a commanding symbol of individual defiance and protest. It registers the absolute contempt of the citizen for the policies of the state and provides a venue for a lawful and appropriate demonstration of personal outrage.
It is senseless to carry on about personal liberty if the citizen is not free to take an unpopular point of view and rail against the government. Free speech needs to be protected particularly if it IS “offensive”. Flag burning is the benchmark for measuring the extent of our personal freedom. We shouldn’t deny ourselves that right for the sake of political correctness.
Any attempt by the Congress to prevent this form of expression will only generate greater distain for the authority of the state. Let Congress stick to its own business and leave the First Amendment alone.
Why not enjoy the “last throes” of the Republic? Express yourself while you can, defend your personal liberty -- burn a flag on Independence Day.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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