Thursday, December 1, 2016

Coercion won't create respect for Old Glory

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, July 4, 2009

     There is sincere debate whether Donald Trump goes on these Twitter rants because he lacks impulse control, or as a fiendishly clever ploy to distract the media from his more significant lapses. 
     I vote for the former. Donald Trump is many things, but a genius he is not. Nor is he disciplined. He manipulates the media merely by being who he is, not by pretending to be who he's not.  To suspect otherwise is to confuse result with intent. The media loses focus on what's significant—assuming anything matters at this point, which might be a false assumption—the way a dog is distracted by a darting squirrel. It isn't as if the squirrel darts for the purpose of catching the attention of dogs. 
     Not that you can blame the media too much for noticing what the president-elect says. His suggestion that flag burners lose their citizenship or go to jail is jaw-dropping, or would be, if our jaws weren't already lolling on the floor. We settled this issue years ago. I don't even have to write about it anymore. But it is an interesting issue; here's a column nearly two decades old. 

     In Boy Scouts, they teach you the flag rules. How to hoist a flag. How to lower it and fold it so it doesn't touch the ground.
     The rules are based purely on respect. If the tip of the flag touches the ground, they don't kick you out of scouting. That would be dumb.
     This is the only way the rules could work. If failing to properly fold the flag into a little triangle could get you sent to jail, nobody would touch a flag. And anyway, there is no coercion necessary. You honor the flag, willingly, because it is the right thing to do.
     This isn't enough for some people, apparently. Honor is a delicate idea, and they would rather put some muscle behind it, to nab the few deviants who don't follow along. It is a craven and cowardly way to think.
     But popular. Last week, 310 Congressboobs in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to belch forth yet another proposed flag amendment to the Constitution, to punish those who "desecrate" the flag.
     The showboat patriots and fascist wannabes let out a whoop, while those who cherish American ideals dropped their heads in shame and prayed for the Senate to bail us out, again, just as it did two years ago.
     Supporters of this bill are like the men who, wanting to be admired by their wives, go home and say, "Honey, show me respect or I'll belt you in the mouth." That's one way to do it, but odds are it won't raise their status at home and most likely will hurt it.
     Every statement made by supporters of the flag amendment disintegrates when reason is applied to it.
     "It is an act of contempt," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). "Flag burning is no more free speech than a child's temper tantrum."
     Exactly. And a child's temper tantrum is free speech. Only an idiot would try to ban them. First, because such a ban wouldn't prevent a single child from throwing a fit in the supermarket when Mom won't buy fudge Pop-Tarts.
     And second, there isn't a problem. Tantrums are a speck in the fabric of life, momentarily embarrassing but without lasting consequence.
     Ditto for flag burners. A tiny, pathetic handful of unwashed radicals burn flags, to show that they've never been abroad and don't realize what a wonderful country this is. It is such a rarity that, when TV grabbed for clips of flag burning last week, half of them were in black and white.
     So, the geniuses behind this flag amendment suggest, to solve this non-crisis, we're going to mess with the Constitution. To fiddle with something so important over a triviality boggles the mind — it's like having your garage door opener implanted in your chest, next to your heart, so you don't lose it.
     Why not legislate against bad breath? Write a constitutional amendment barring hairy fat men from wearing strap T-shirts. They're objectionable, too, and far more common than flag burners.
     This amendment isn't American. Burn a flag in Saudi Arabia, and they might cut your hands off. Burn a flag in China and you might never get out of prison. Are their flags grander than ours, because we protect ours only with an intangible such as respect? I don't think so.
     Freedom is a mixed blessing, but it beats the alternative. As bad as it is to find a wad of Doublemint stuck to your shoe, it is worse to live in Singapore, where the jackboot "democracy" bans chewing gum.
     The worst thing about this bill is that its only result will be a spate of flag burnings. People who would never dream of burning a flag — myself included — will wonder if perhaps their patriotic duty now demands them to take the extreme step, lest some other form of speech be banned next year.
     That's why I'm grateful for the idea suggested by my friend John Scalzi, the resident wit at America Online. He reacted to the last flag amendment by proposing to market a flag with 49 stars and call it I Can't Believe It's Not the American Flag. That way, people could protest the law by burning this near-flag while not forced to burn a real one.
     Would burning a Not the American Flag be a crime? It isn't the flag, because it's one star short. But it would look very much like the flag. Once it was on fire, nobody would count the stars and the message still would get across.
     The beauty of the Not the American Flag concept is that it shows the moral emptiness of this proposed flag amendment, the idiocy of those who argue that burning a flag isn't speech, protected by law.
     The U.S. flag is not an object with 50 stars. It isn't a thing, but rather an idea. It's the idea behind a flag that makes people upset when flags burn; not the cloth, not the stars.
     What the dolts in Congress don't realize is that you cannot burn an idea. America is fireproof. You can't diminish her with a match.
     This isn't the first time people have eroded liberties in the name of freedom. In the 1950s, we were so afraid of the Soviets, we imposed Soviet-style repression to combat them. As if we already had been conquered.
     It was shameful then, and even more shameful now, since we aren't faced with a powerful enemy. Just ourselves, and the truth that there are people who hate their own country and feel the need to denounce it. A hundred new amendments to the Constitution won't change that.

       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 15, 1997


  1. I suppose that I'm not the first to point out that the very same people so vehemently opposed to flag burning as a freedom of speech issue squarely support the notion that money is speech. Scalia to his credit recognized the logical necessity of protecting even vile speech, although he didn't mind giving millionaires the ability to use their millions to drown out the speech of the less financially endowed. But he was always a minority of one.


    1. So if someone burned a very expensive flag, would that make it OK?

  2. In the same vein, I sent this around a few years ago. You can add the NFL team logos on the flags I saw during the Raiders-Texans game.

    I have been receiving many disturbing emails about how Obama has desecrated the flag.
    Let me tell you, I was really upset.

    I was so upset that I dropped my Flag Mug spilling hot coffee on my Flag Pajamas.
    Of course that got my Flag Underwear wet and ran onto my Flag Chair.
    I had to wipe it up with my Flag Paper Towels, which I found right next to the
    Flag Paper Plates and Cups.
    All the bending up and down on top of the anguish this had already caused, I became
    violently ill, fortunately my Flag Bucket was handy. All the thrashing around made my
    diverticulitis kick in and I shit all over myself, so off to bathroom I went.
    There I sat on my Flag Toilet Seat and finished the job, cleaning myself the best I could
    with my Flag Toilet Paper.
    Being a mess, I had no choice but to pull back my Flag Shower Curtain and clean myself up.
    The Flag Soap worked its magic with my Flag Washcloth making certain to get in all the
    cracks and crevices. The Flag Beach Towel came in handy to make sure the job was done.
    Finally feeling refreshed I put on my Flag Thong, Flag Socks, Flag Jeans and Belt, Flag Shirt,
    Flag Converse Shoes, leather Flag Jacket and Flag Hat.
    Ready to get over the bad start of my day, I ventured out for a nice walk around the neighborhood.
    Nice to see all the patriotism on display. There’s the Flag everywhere. Well, some may be missing the
    last two stripes, that one is shredded all the way to the pole, I’m sure that one stuck in the gutter is OK.
    There’s one that’s wrapped around the pole, but I suppose the Cubs flag that’s over it will protect it.
    Funny I didn’t notice all this last night when we were walking around. But it was dark and none had a light
    on them. But hey, Patriotism is nice but, electricity don’t grow on trees you know.
    Those that use the Flag as anything but THE FLAG are no Patriots.

    You can Google all the Flag products mentioned to see them, unfortunately I didn’t make any of them up.
    Maybe you should Google Flag Code too.


    1. By the way, I believe the Flag Code specifies that the worn, faded, ripped, and shredded Flags you mentioned should be disposed of properly: by burning them.


    2. Of course it does. Which shows how silly the whole flag-burning argument is, because it's a law against intent. I have an old, worn, faded flag, and if this becomes an issue, which I imagine it won't, I will burn it, respectfully, while thinking on how lightly some hold the freedoms it represents.

  3. "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Dr. Johnson

    "There was no patriotism in the trenches. That was too remote a sentiment and fit only for civilians. A new arrival who talked patriotism was told to cut it out. Robert Graves "Goodbye to All That."

    Tom Evans

  4. A little coda. A Chicago pol who is organizing a demonstration to convince Colin Kaepernick not to kneel while the national anthem is played said his demonstration on such "hallowed ground" showed disrespect to our troops, Soldier Field, evidently have been sanctified by the god of football.


    1. Well, they used to have car races (Fireball Roberts comes to mind) and hillbilly music concerts (I Andy Frained one in the late 50s), but that was before the ridiculous renovation. I think the pol is referring to the "memorial" aspect of the stadium. God only knows why it hasn't been renamed for some living commercial enterprise.


  5. The flag code does allow for fines or imprisonment for flag abuse but certainly doesn't revoke citizenship over it.



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