Monday, June 27, 2005

Burn, Baby Burn: Free Speech Inferno

(Supplied by

Guess where I was when I heard that Congress passed a Constitutional amendment to ban burning of the American flag? In my Ford (where else would I be on a day that ends in "y"?). At that moment, I was stuck in traffic behind a Chevy that had American flag head rest covers. And it got me thinking...

Whaaaaaa? What year is this?

My guess is that proponents of the amendment think that burning a flag is tantamount to treason. Please. Burning the flag is respectful dissent. Any argument to the contrary was lost the day people slapped the Stars and Stripes on anything other than a square of canvas destined for a flagpole. To wit:
Yep, that's Will Ferrell in a Saturday Night Live skit (thanks to for the image). If there were gobs of reverence for the American flag, would it be plastered on g-strings, pet baseball hats, diaper covers, and doormats? I mean, you literally scrape dirt off of your feet onto a doormat; is that how we want our flag treated? And don't tell me the diaper cover is OK because it's cute; I have a one-year-old, and it is most certainly NOT cute when I'm changing his soiled diapers and anything else that he might've contaminated.

Plenty of people will also argue that burning the flag is akin to burning a cross, and should thus be stamped out in a similar manner. Well, if my read of the Supreme Court's hearing of Virginia v. Black in 2002 is correct, it isn't the same thing -- not by a long shot.

Burning a cross, according to the esteemed nine, is a message of intimidation with immediate personal threat. This action is directly tied to a sad, oppressive chapter in U.S....well, I'd like to say history, but I'm not a moron. It still happens.

Burning a flag, on the other hand, expresses "opposition to the thing that the symbol unburned represents." Additionally, "The flag is a symbol of our government, and one of the things about free speech is we can criticize the President, the Supreme Court, anybody, and feel totally free about doing that. It's the symbol of government. But the cross is not attacking the government. It's attacking people, threatening their lives and limbs."

So, banning the burning of a cross is reasonable since it is inextricably tied to threatening someone with bodily harm. This is not the case with the flag. Ask yourself: do you honestly feel threatened with bodily harm when someone domestically burns an American flag? My guess is no. I'll admit to prickly anxiety when I see footage of citizens of other nations torching Old Glory, because my assumption is that they want to harm U.S. citizens. But when an American burns our flag, I see it as political dissent, not a harbinger of being clubbed over the head.

My cynical self believes that there are two insidious reasons that this issue has such momentum right now:

1) There are loads of politicians who want you to be distracted by outrage over burning flags, as opposed being outraged by the root issues protested through flag burning.

2) This is something that they can actually accomplish, cross off a list, and put to bed, unlike a myriad of other issues on the table -- literacy, crime, poverty.

Don't doubt my patriotism. I consider myself fantastically lucky to have been born an American citizen, and there's no other soil I want to call home. The American flag, to which I pledged allegiance roughly 2,210 times, is partly mine. So, if I am incensed by the actions of my government which is symbolized by said flag, I should be permitted to destroy it in protest. I would not trample it, or desecrate it, or make a bikini out of it. I would burn it, as outlined in the flag etiquette standards of respect, because in my mind, it would no longer be fit to serve as a symbol of our country.

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