Monday, July 03, 2006

No Flagging Spirit

I put up my new flag yesterday. It's an annual tradition that generally occurs on Memorial Day. My flag flys every day and one year is about as long as you can go before the flag starts to look worn. There is nothing that distresses me more than the sight of ragged-looking flag drooping and faded. I say that without any pride, but with only bewilderment at the casual disrespect so many Americans exhibit when displaying the national symbol.

And yet, so many of those same citizens feign outrage over the burning of flag as to urge the Constitution be amended to make that act a federal crime. Please. Don't trivialize the Constitution so. I find it just as distasteful to wrap one's self in the flag as a to trample it.

The American flag, like that of any nation, is a simple piece of cloth until it is imbued with a sense of national character and purpose, and thereby becomes a symbol of a common identity. Those of us who cherish the American flag do so because we recognize the shared values it represents, as do those who salute the symbols of any free state. Those who revile these same symbols do so because they reject the values expressed by the cloth, and wish the world to take notice of that fact.

But the values themselves are not contained in the cloth, so the anger represented by burning the flag in protest accomplishes nothing except to showcase the frustration of those incapable of mounting a effective argument sans inflammatory pyrotechnics. It's a photo-op, and nothing more.

On the other hand, when I gather up the retired flags I've carefully stored and take them to the VFW Post for disposal, those flags are burned with unheralded, but solemn ceremony. That act clearly reflects the national values invested in the cloth, values that I hold dear. The burning of the flag in such circumstances counts for something far more important than the shrill seconds-long exhibition of anger that is truly nothing more than a provocative act aimed at the TV cameras.

Chistopher Hitchens, himself a naturalized citizen, writes boldly in today's Wall Street Journal of the "flag fetish" that has gripped the nation recently. (The link may only work for subscribers only. Sorry. Email me if you'd like me to send a copy.) Mr. Hitchens speaks for me:

I would perhaps be suspected of excess Fourth-of-July zeal if I said that the First Amendment is my life as well as the source of my living, but I swear that it would not be that far from the truth. No other country has such a terse and comprehensive statement of the case for free expression: considered important enough to rank first, and also to rank with the freedom of religious conscience. The jewel in the crown of the Bill of Rights does not say that Congress shall make no hasty or crowd-pleasing law abridging the right of assembly and protest. It stoutly insists that Congress shall make no such law.

Thus, it does not matter at all which opinion, or which "sensitivity," is being outraged. The uttermost limit of contempt for America, or American foreign policy, is evidently the vandalizing (and, mindful of the careful neutrality of the Constitution regarding religion, let us not say "desecration") of the stars and stripes. Shall we then say that expression is protected only until it reaches its symbolic limit? What could be more absurd? It is precisely because the flag is so important to some people that we must permit its trashing by others. To legislate otherwise would be to instate a taboo, and that is exactly what the First Amendment exists to forestall....

If I find that I have stuck a flag-stamp on an envelope and accidentally put it on upside-down, I admit with slight embarrassment that I now start over with a new envelope. Nobody would ever notice my tiny disrespect, but I still won't commit it. However, the whole case would be altered if I was told that I had to get it right. The flag would no longer stand for the constitutional spirit that gives it meaning in the first place. It may once have waved over hellish plantations but it was also defended to the end by the Maine regiment at Little Round Top. Without ambiguities and ironies, it would not be what it is. And ambiguity and irony are just what the flag-fetishists do not understand.

If they did have any concept of historical and political irony, they would surely be repelled by at least some of the senators who affected to take their side. You may believe if you choose that Hillary Clinton has abruptly decided to stand between her country's star-spangled banner and its unsleeping enemies. I cannot quite shake the feeling that she is instead putting the flag between herself and her potential critics. Is it this kind of degraded election-year parody that the sponsors of the proposal seriously wanted to encourage? In Iraq, our most desperate field of battle, our troops do not display the flag on patrol because they are in someone else's country. No thinking soldier needs to have this explained to him, or her. But in Washington, the alleged "defense" of the flag depends, for its swing-votes, on people whose very stock-in-trade is cowardice. That ought never to have happened, and is an insult to those who serve, and ought not be permitted to happen again.

It's easy enough to boast that "these colors do not run." However, those who mistake the symbol for the essence are manifesting not a show of spirit for the former but a pathetic lack of confidence in the latter.

The "flag burning amendment" is one of the most disgraceful and disingenuous piece of legislation that has ever burbled up from the cesspool of pandering politics.

Word to Congress: I don't need your laws to respect my flag. Forget symbols. You can't handle the symbols. Find some other institution where laws are necessary to garner the trust and faith of those deserving of your trust.

Like Congress.


portia said...

Bravo, spd. Excellent post. I agree with you 100%, and even when you suggest that allowing the flag to fly tattered or faded or dirty is, in itself, a form of casual disrespect. Shall we legislate that too?

It's a bogus issue by the "I'm more patriotic than thou" crowd hell bent on manipulating supporters for political profit, and creating fodder for next year's elections: Senator X voted against protecting our Flag!

More importantly, what kind of message do we send to the rest of the world when we restrict our Bill of Rights to provide that a symbol of democracy is more important than a principle of democracy? I dare say that possibility is more dangerous than any book of matches, and in the words of Justice Scalia "dilutes the very freedom that makes the emblem so revered."

Heh. How 'bout that? We agree, and I'm quoting Scalia!

spd rdr said...

Like the subtle squeeze of the anaconda, one who ignores the subtle envelopment of creeping conservatism does so at his or her own peril. In any event, when I start to make sense, I can guarantee that you are about to lose your underwear.

Seriously, there is no reason to view the stars and stripes as anything less than a symbol of every last damned American. Anyone who disagrees is entitled to his or her opinion (but only in certain societies). As to how I might respect such an opinion, it would depend upon the freedom with which I was expressed.

portia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
portia said...


With that guarantee, losing my bloomers would be a small price to pay, spd.

Your 2nd paragraph though seems like an obvious yet oddly argumentative response. Is that offered up as a zinger to what I wrote, or is it merely the newness of finding myself on the "same page" with you?

I hope it's the latter. We were doing so well:)

spd rdr said...

The ability of pre-historic humans to express one's self is the single most extraordinary evolutionary event ever recorded.

Jazz is their decendant's proof that we are up to the task.

spd rdr said...

Boy, does that ever sound dumb.

Except to jazz fans, of course.

Cassandra said...

Our ability to show disrespect to the flag is, in itself, symbolic of the freedoms we hold dearer than life itself, and of our ability to tolerate diametrically opposing beliefs yet still live together in peace.

It represents, in one simple word, America.

Wonderful, mr rdr. Thank you.

spd rdr said...

I am stumbled by your praise.
God bless America, each of us.

camojack said...

I have a confession to make; the light that is supposed to illuminate my flag at night burnt out, and has yet to be replaced.

My knee surgery is no excuse...