Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flag Day

Today, June 14, is Flag Day. I'm not by nature a big flag waver, but this is one day when I fly Old Glory. I do it on the 4th, Memorial Day and Veterans' Day as well. This evening at dusk, while I was talking the battered old flag down, I thought about the flag and how important it's long been to most Americans. Unfortunately, my thoughts also turned to how the patriotic impulses stirred in most of us by the flag have been routinely misused by politicians and various other low lifes, a trend that's seemingly accelerated in recent years. To me, the flag kind of means something like what I've seen at the Court of the Missing in the Punchbowl National Cemetary.

Something very stirring in the right circumstances, but not something to be used to stir up jingoistic pride, and most decidedly not something that should be viewed as anything more than a symbol of what we always hope will be our national greatness. What I'm doing here is kind of making an end run approach into one of my particular pet rocks: the repeated attempts on the part of politicians to promote the flag to the status of icon and afford it special protections against defacement. Such special protections would, IMO, constitute an egregious infringement of a precious constitutional right, the right to tell the government it's full of shit.

Here's what I once wrote on the subject. What you see below appeared in a national publication oriented towards military officers. It was part of a debate with a Republican senator, a man who, no doubt believed I was a commie, know the rest. I acknowledged his right to so term me, while I also asserted my right to view him as a shameless panderer.

"I’m an unabashed flag-waver. It never fails to stir me and remind me how much I love my country. But despite my feelings, I can’t support a Constitutional amendment allowing Congress to prohibit the flag’s defacement. The flag is not America. It is a symbol of America, a nation made special by its constitutional freedoms, even including the right to deface the flag. By promoting the flag to icon status, this amendment is bumper-sticker patriotism, unworthy of America.

"According to the Senate Judiciary Committee, defacing of the flag makes us question our commitment to American ideals and shake our identity as Americans. Really? Why would a flag burning ever make us question this wonderful country? They also say the flag inspires Americans. Yes, but what does that have to do with the freedoms for which we’ve fought? Read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Now, there’s inspiration.

"As precedent for their amendment, the committee majority cites a 1634 prosecution of flag defacement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. What they don’t say is that this incident involved an English flag and protest of English tyranny. Discussions of prosecutions under the British crown are interesting, but what this has to do with Americans’ First Amendment rights is unclear. Our forebears threw the crown and its tyranny out. Why invite it back in now?

"The Founders are silent on the subject of Americans defacing an American flag, but they left some clues — none favorable to this amendment. The writings of Madison and Jefferson are rife with words such as “tyranny” and “despotism,” all aimed at government. These Founders did not trust government. For them to support any action aimed at limiting protest against government is unthinkable — because they did not view the perceived needs of the state as more important than individual rights. That way lies Tiananmen Square.

"Flag burning is the ultimate form of political protest. It strikes at the very heart of our beliefs, and it may tell us truths we don’t want to hear. But you don’t burn a flag unless you have a serious grievance against government. Despite our personal feelings about it, this act requires the highest form of protection— because it is aimed at government. I also know that the only way I can guarantee my freedoms is to fight for your freedoms, even if I don’t like you.

"Limiting political expression to topics approved by Congress is the proverbial camel's nose under the tent. Next, we might see amendments prohibiting petitions to Congress regarding broken promises to military personnel, or making it a crime to investigate dishonest government officials. If a government gets away with compromising liberty once, it's that much easier to do it again.

"Since the beginning, Americans have fought for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Many battles have also been fought between citizens and a government that’s sometimes been indifferent or hostile to their grievances. We should never accept that government is always benign: the Founders admonished us to be ever watchful because they knew it was government’s nature to expand its authority at the expense of individual rights. Thus the Bill of Rights, which is all about protecting us from government.

"At the close of the 20th century, Americans can say we prevailed. We won the Cold War. We beat the Nazis. We rid ourselves of slavery. We discredited the divine rights of monarchs. We’ve lived up to the vision of our Founders, without retreating from the bedrock principles spelled out in the Bill of Rights. Why retreat now? Why give up those liberties for which we’ve paid so dearly? What danger to the republic exists now that didn’t in 1942? In 1862?

"The amendment’s sponsors talk about the glories of the flag, but they don’t talk about giving up constitutional rights to protect it. The truth is we have to. Sure, we hate to see a flag burned. The sponsors rely on that to sway us. But does the flag outweigh the Constitution? This is no threat to America. Far better to show our patriotism by keeping faith with the Constitution—our birthright—even if we have to endure the occasional flag-burning. The Constitution’s true genius is that no one can take our rights from us. Let’s not give them away."

This turned out to be a most gratifying experience, not just because I believed I kicked the senator's butt, but because of what followed. And this is what I want to share with everyone, especially those with little or no military experience and who might accordingly not have a great deal of insight into the character of those who serve. I heard personally from military officers of all services, from all over the country. A bulletin board was established so that officers could render an opinion and debate the matter themselves. Bottom line was that close to 90% of the officers responding agreed with me. They shared my opinion that our liberties are far too important to be tampered with by politicians. Frankly, I was a little surprised at the outcome. But, upon reflection, I realized that straw poll didn't come out the way it did because I was such a persuasive writer. It was because even the most hardcore conservative guy wearing the uniform knows his Constitution and knows what it means.

So the next time you find yourself believing some of the more egregious horseshit peddled by Hollywood, Rush Limbaugh or Fox News about American military personnel, I hope you remember my little story.

What do you all think?


  1. I think you were spot on, but were fortunate in addressing a group that, unlike the "average" American, must perforce spend some time thinking about nations and nationalism, patriotism and the implications of what it means to be an American.

    I'll be willing to bet that if you'd made the same statements to, and polled a group of, civilians from a cross-section of American life you'd have gotten a much lower approval rating. Most of my countrymen I've encountered are no different than most Britons, Chinese, Brazilians or Zimbabweians; to them their "country" is a person (in the form of a king, president or prime minister), a flag, a song, maybe a couple of objects. I'll bet that if you made out a list of ten "things" and asked 100 people "Which of these most represents America to you?" the Constitution would come in somewhere above hot dogs and apple pie but below the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial and the damn marine statue of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.

    I'm afraid I am increasingly distrustful of my country's apparent addiction to the cheap, shiny, novel and famous. Call me a curmudgeon - I'm sure that the Americans of 1909 were worse, if anything, but I the past twenty years have made me skeptical of my countrymen's ability to resist demagogery on loaded issues like this.

  2. Well done, Publius. While our politicos misuse anything they can get their grubby hands on, their misuse of the flag really turns my stomach.

    nuff said!


  3. So...Publius...about this part of your article...

    "We rid ourselves of slavery. We discredited the divine rights of monarchs. We’ve lived up to the vision of our Founders, without retreating from the bedrock principles spelled out in the Bill of Rights."

    do you still feel that way?

  4. Right-on. The flag is a symbol, and while my patriotism rises when saluting her, she is, in truth a piece of cloth. The flag's desecration causes me pain, and yet it is protected speech. Freedom of Speech trumps "flag-waving" any day of the week.

    The idea of making the flag off-limits seems in line with our current lust with investing hero status onto non-heroes. Very few things are actually divine, and if they were possessed of such a beatific spirit, no human action could sully them, anyway.

    What we are protecting by making certain things verboten is our own fragile sense of faith and trust.

    Glad most of the officers agreed with you. I wonder about the EM (?)

  5. And I should add, nothing desecrates the flag more than some slovenly Toby Kieth-listening yahoo wearing the red-white-and blue as the pattern of his polo shirt. Worse, he hasn't any idea what he is doing.

  6. Lisa, there's another item that tops your "Toby Keith" yahoo.

    Whenever I read stories like the KBR-linked electrocutions of our people in Iraq, various health care issues concerning our wounded, now poison burn pits, other issues like those, there's nothing decent I can say.

    Compared to some dirty foul-mouthed hippy ( for lack of a better term ) desecrating and burning our flag, I'll take the desecration any day.


  7. Well said Publius! Unfortunateely, it wasn't just Republicans who voted for it. This amendment passed by a large margin in the House of Representatives all five times it was introduced over the previous 15 years. The last time it was introduced 77 Democratic Representatives voted for it along with 14 Democratic Senators. It had only 66 Senatorial votes falling one shy of the required two thirds, thanks to the foresight of the founding fathers. Three Republican Senators voted against it. I can understand Lincoln Chafee's vote, and perhaps he paid for it later. But Bob Bennett and Mitch McConnell, go figure!!! Bennett is Utahn and he voted agaist it despite the fact that the bill was introduced by Orrin Hatch. Some of the more jaded have put forth the theory that they wanted to keep it alive for a dividing issue in the future???

    Many politicians view this issue as a way to keep the votes rolling in. Unfortunately there are many more who are haters and hunters of heresy. IMHO they act in the manner of the Wahhabis, seeking practices to ban and people to punish.

    Like some here I believe that flag desecration is obscene and painful, but that banning it would be even more despicable. Although I do confess to some hypocrisy on this subject. It would have been poetic justice in my eyes to see some of the self professed super-patriots who flew those car window flags after 9/11 and let them get carelessly dropped into the gutter prosecuted under such legislation.


  8. Publius-

    What can I say? Nailed it.

    It resonates since it comes down to the basic question as to what it is exactly that unites us as Americans? A flag?

    What of the shared values I knew in younger days, what of "common sense"? What values do I associate with being an American? How many of my fellow Americans would share them? The flag is a prop, it's as you say what's behind the flag that counts.

  9. The Tao says,

    "Naming often makes things impersonal,
    so we should know when naming should end.
    Knowing when to stop naming,
    you can avoid the pitfall it brings."

    So, don't let the name (or item) become confused with what is being named. A name, a word, a thing, is something separate, an abstraction.

  10. mike: I've never been sentimental about our flag or anyone else's flag. As Lisa points out, it's a scrap of cloth. My wife's t-shirt is more dear to me, warm and scented with her skin as it is. So I take the burning or other vandalism of the American flag as what it is: an expression of political animosity. If someone is willing to take that animosity to the extreme of attacking my country and its people, I was and am prepared to reply personally with violent force. Otherwise? Burning the flag "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg", as Tom Jefferson said.

    Lisa: Sadly, the power of names is such that it is terribly common to confuse the name or the appearance of a thing with the thing itself, which accounts for all of commercial television, about 50% of marriages, and the ineradicable persistance of the Wonderbra.

  11. "which accounts for all of commercial television, about 50% of marriages, and the ineradicable persistance of the Wonderbra"

    Which is rife with implication (esp. the Wonderbra comment.) I would guess, more than 50% of marriages. Appearance is king -- vanity, all is vanity. "Everyone said we looked good together," was the clueless plea of a close friend upon mulling over his train wreck of a marriage. Yeah, I'll bet you did.

    This is why I disparage of organized religion -- it is a divisive institution which gives lip service to the brotherhood of man. No! If we were all brothers and sisters, we'd have no need of cleaving off into these silly little factions.

    We project ourselves into objects and groups which we invest with meaning, and imagine them inviolable. "Them's fighting words" if someone dares challenge us, thence the Hatfields and the McCoys and every other longstanding grudge and misery.

    No identification, no misery.


  12. FDChief As Lisa points out, it's a scrap of cloth.

    One of my top Sci Fi series, Babylon5, had an episode about flags.

    From wiki:

    "Every five Earth years, the Drazi have a "civil war" among two rival factions, green Drazi and purple Drazi. A Drazi's allegiance is decided arbitrarily by choosing a colored sash (either green or purple) which is then worn around their torso. There is no inherent motive or reason for the civil war at all, other than tradition. This "civil war" takes the form of a series of (usually) non-lethal contests. A group of Green Drazi on their homeworld intended to escalate to lethal violence which was quickly followed by Green Drazi on Babylon 5. Commander Susan Ivanova ended the contest through the use of a loophole in the rules: taking the sashes of the leaders and ordering both groups to stop fighting.[4] In the fifth season episode The Ragged Edge, a Drazi is shown wearing a sash made up of both colors on the Drazi homeworld, suggesting Ivanova's solution had spread to the general population."


  13. Lisa,

    This is why I disparage of organized religion -- it is a divisive institution which gives lip service to the brotherhood of man. No! If we were all brothers and sisters, we'd have no need of cleaving off into these silly little factions.

    Are you sure you are not Robert G. Ingersoll reincarnated?!


  14. FDchief: "My wife's t-shirt is more dear to me,..."

    I would hope so. Surely we all cherish our families and the fabric they wrap themselves in more than that of the country.