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, pinko...you 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?