June 15, 2007
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Today (which is yesterday around the world) is Flag Day in the United States. No doubt a good number of politicians will be making good use of the day. Probably some of them will take the opportunity to resubmit anti-flag-burning laws. It's interesting how the recommended, respectful way to dispose of an old flag is by burning; presumably the flag-burning laws allow for that, but simply outlaw specific burnings, as done in protest. And that's what I wanted to comment on--what must be either utter cluelessness about what the flag represents, or the unmitigated opportunism of a politician to savage the core principles of America in order to gain a little in the polls.
Think about that dichotomy I just mentioned: a law that would allow burning for disposal but outlaw burning for protest. In short, burning itself is not being outlawed--instead, intent is being outlawed.* What's more, it's not violent intent, it's not even hateful intent--after all, the people who burn the American flag in hatred are usually overseas, where our laws don't apply; addressing this law to them would be impotent and stupid. No, the intent being outlawed here is simple: the intent to protest, the intent to maintain the freedoms and liberties inherent to the concept of America, the intent to practice free speech. In fact, the intent could even be one of celebration and respect.
* [Yes, I know your potential point about hate crimes and punishing intent; first, I would ask, if you oppose hate crimes for that reason, do you also oppose laws against flag burning for the same reason, and second, I see the hate crimes law not as outlawing intent itself, but identifying a more dangerous class of criminal as their harmful intent is toward a large group of people, and not just to an individual. But I digress.]Now let's focus a little on what the flag is. The flag is not just a piece of cloth, it has meaning--that's what the whole brouhaha is about, in fact, and why some people object to flag-burning in the first place. But what does the flag represent? Does it represent the land, the physical fifty states embroidered on it as stars, or the original thirteen included as stripes? No. The flag represents America as an idea. And that idea is laid out in the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights. The flag, essentially, is a symbolic representation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Keep that one in mind, it's important here.
When you have an idea so sacred and important as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the flag, no matter how sacred and respected it may be, takes a back seat. The flag, as a symbol, is not equal to, but rather is rather subordinate to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The flag is a symbol; you destroy it, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights still remain, as does America. But if you destroy the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the flag is meaningless, and America collapses.
Now, let's be clear on the fact that American people who burn the flag are usually idiots. Not because they're burning the flag in itself, but because of why they are doing it. These people usually think they are protesting our government in doing so, that the flag represents the administration in some way. Which, of course, shows their own ignorance: the flag does not represent any one president, any one bureaucracy, or any one modern administration. It does not represent the government. So when they burn the flag, they're burning the wrong thing. Idiots.
Fortunately, Americans who burn the flag in protest are extremely rare. Really, when was the last time you heard of Americans protesting the government and burning a flag? Even before 9/11? As Aaron Sorkin wrote for the fictional Jed Bartlet, "Is there an epidemic of flag burning going on that I'm not aware of?" It's not as if this is really an actual dilemma. It instead is manufactured by people who would just as soon urinate on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights if it meant more power for them.
But it's not the politicians who are the real problem: it is, instead, the sizable portion of Americans who have embraced the symbolism, bought into the hype and the fanfare, and have left the core principles behind. And yes, by that I mean conservatives. Not all conservatives, but a hearty majority.
Conservatives say they love the Constitution, but they rail against it being expressed most of the time. The tendency is to see most of the Bill of Rights as being a sop to criminals or a liberal knee-jerk reaction. The Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments can be scrapped when we get too scared of the bad guys. The Fifth Amendment is a loophole for criminals to squeeze through, and the Eighth is a namby-pamby, bleeding heart sellout for those who love criminals too much to give them what they really deserve. And don't even mention the Ninth Amendment, or else those liberals will go crazy with all the rights they think they have.
No sir, the only Amendment that conservatives seem to respect is the Second Amendment, and that part of the First Amendment that talks about religion, but only if it's interpreted to mean that religion can go anywhere and do anything, and to hell with the commie atheists.
In short, conservatives often dislike and disrespect many or most of the core ideas contained in the Bill of Rights (and all to often the Constitution itself as well). But they love the symbolism, the pomp and circumstance, as long as we leave the troubling issues of what they represent outside the door.
And that is the core issue represented by the flag burning debate. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America was specifically designed to allow for free expression of ideas, whether they are expressed by speaking on a soapbox, drawing a political cartoon of a leader, or--yes--by burning a flag.
If we were to follow the lead of the opportunistic politicians who submit proposals to amend the Constitution to include a flag-burning amendment, we would be betraying the core principles upon which the Constitution was based. We would be killing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The flag would be protected, but the Constitution would be lessened, weakened, watered down. And as a result, the flag itself would lose an intrinsic value, an injury that could not be matched by the burning of a hundred thousand flags.
You burn a flag, I can make a thousand more, and each of those flags shines just as bright with meaning, perhaps even brighter since I will have proved that burning the flag cannot lessen it.
But you weaken the Constitution, I can't make a thousand more of that. There's only one, and when it's injured, everything else collapses.
So yes, the people who burn flags are usually idiots. However, they are tiny in number, and their feeble acts of protest harm the nation not at all. The people who want to weaken the Constitution because they buy into the hype and the symbolism empty of meaning--these are the real threat. The people who think the flag is more important than the Constitution, these people are legion in number, and if successful, they could deliver a body blow to the freedoms they make a show of admiring. These are dangerous idiots.
As an ending note, I would point out that there is a third group: those who burn the flag not out of hatred, and not out of protest--but out of respect and celebration for what the flag represents. Watch the video below. It's a scene from The West Wing, but in fact it is the closing act from Penn & Teller's Vegas show, but with additional content added on. Penn & Teller's original stage act can be seen here, but the clip below is just as, if not more, entertaining.
Posted by Luis at June 15, 2007 11:22 PM