Burn, Baby, Burn

Terry Sawyer

Last we checked, not a single soldier in Iraq has been wounded or killed by a burning flag. A burnt flag has taken no one's job, nor stolen anyone's pension. Health-care premiums have not skyrocketed because of scorched Stars and Stripes. So why have Republicans made a anti-flag-burning amendment legislative priority number one?

PopMatters Film and TV Features Editor

You can usually tell that Republican political fortunes have begun to flush when they start shouting "Faggot" and "Burning Flag" in a crowded theater. With a vote of 286-130, the House voted on June 22nd in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban the "desecration" of the American flag. Sure, one might think that working on the stabilization of Iraq or shoring up the ballooning deficit might trump this non-issue, but that's just because you, cynical reader, haven't looked out your window recently to see the street infernos caused by mile upon mile of dangerous subversives and their desire to destroy our country's fabric with a single flick of their Bics. Conservatives have perfected this all-too-familiar bait and switch, fleecing working class folk by economically ass raping them only to divert attention later with a little ole high octane irrationality. Forget your lack of health insurance people, we gots ourselves queers trying to marry and flag burners roaming free.

Last we checked, not a single soldier in Iraq has been wounded or killed by a burning flag. A burnt flag has taken no one's job, nor stolen anyone's pension. Health-care premiums have not skyrocketed because of scorched Stars and Stripes. So why have Republicans made a anti-flag-burning amendment legislative priority number one?

Let me say that I myself would never choose to burn a flag, if only because self-expression through fire seems a little too bed-wetting serial killer for my tastes. Besides, such inflammatory acts of political theater leave too much interpretive ambiguity. Though I know what it is to make specific and radical arguments against certain policies and their advocates, I also believe in a separate sphere where courtesy gets extended to various conceptions of the sacred. Consequently, I'm just as unlikely to cook brisket with the stars and stripes as I would to walk around with a crucifix dangling out of my ass. But it's a huge jurisdictional leap to incorporate the niceties of private conscience into the realm of the legal code. For all their howling about "politically correct" speech regimes on a few college campuses, Republicans have no problem proposing the much more drastic measure of amending the U.S. Constitution to forbid political expression that offends them, a proposition they have forwarded several times since the 1989 Supreme Court decision (Texas v. Johnson) overturning the 1968 statutes banning crimes against revered cloth.

The original laws protecting the flag as sacred object weren't, as you might be led to believe, devised by the Founding Fathers. There was no portion of the Constitutional Conventions devoted to creating a national cultic object, the American equivalent of pieces of Jesus' foreskin wrapped in a box. The federal statute protecting flags from flame was adopted in 1968, during the Vietnam War, when sexually licentious long hairs torched them at rallies protesting American involvement in Vietnam. Though it was the very existence of the protestors which truly stoked the ire of conservative Americans, many of whom darkly suggested that the mere presence of protest brought treasonous aid and comfort to the enemy (sound familiar?), focusing on flag desecration made for good vote bait. Like the pledge of allegiance and "In God We Trust" brazenly blazoned on the commercial medium that the Bible refers to as "the root of all kinds of evil", the flag-burning issue operates as a political strategy for defining liberals as insufficiently American by investing patriotic rituals and symbols with hatred for liberals values; since it is invariably liberals who must explain who restricting freedom or imposing religion is not, in fact, an admirable American value.

Conservatives have always been loath to promote a definition of patriotism not intimately tied to their self-image. And god knows when the system doesn't work in accordance to their will, like the judicial rulings in the Terry Schiavo case, they aren't averse to threatening American principles with savagery of the most thuggish variety. Worse still, political disagreements often get framed in ways that imply that liberals secretly desire the destruction of America, as Karl Rove intimated in a recent speech he gave by saying: "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9-11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9-11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Conservatives actively seek to conflate their figureheads with the whole of America, as though George W. Bush were a synecdoche for American values themselves. It's this psychotic narcissism that compels Republicans paint liberals as "anti-American" every time they oppose an administration policy or expose the teetering Jenga tower that is the so-called war on terror. Likewise, liberals who oppose the flag-burning amendment will doubtlessly be portrayed as dirty hippies spitting phlegm wads into slices of apple pie baked for returning soldiers.

When something close to an argument does materialize in the flag-burning debate, it's usually of the incandescently retarded sort, like those who apply Biblical literalism to the First Amendment, pointing out that igniting a flag is not technically "speech". If that's valid, then presumably the First Amendment also wouldn't prohibit the federal government from making the deaf walk around with their hands in their pockets, or banning any book that the ruling class deemed offensive, or torching entire museums for not being in the protected "talkie" category of expression. The proponents of the flag-burning amendment failed to see the irony (though smeared liked feces on their faces) in barking that the flag's a symbol of unity and then seeking to enforce that unity by imprisoning those that disagree. Why do Republicans insist on such heavy doses of authoritarianism in their "unity"? Both their love for the pledge of allegiance and their Constitution-torching attack on flag burning suggest that what it means to be American must be statutorily enforced. You'd think something unifying would be so self-evident as to not require police involvement.

But then again, conservatives know that this argument needs little in the way of coherence or integrity, since it's easy to exploit the flag-burning issue in ways that pit sobbing WWII vets against stock footage of unbathed anarchists. Do soldiers die for the flag? One would hope not, but since it's their lives they're sacrificing, I'd be inclined to let them die for whatever they wanted to die for. But does their battlefield bravery entitle ideologues to redraw the boundaries of liberty back home based on whatever happens to hurt their feelings? Would these same soldiers be happy to return to a totalitarian United States as long as the flag flew everywhere intact? If the answer is no, then presumably it's not the flag that they're willing to die for but a specific set of liberties and principles, chief among them our freedom to express the widest possible variety of political ideas of any country in the world. No palpable harm comes from having to endure opinions or expression that one finds morally repulsive. But the death of soldiers ranks right up their with the crumpled innocence of "the children" as handy ways to short-circuit the intellect by wiring directly into people's emotional soft spots. Now Republican congressman can use the mass murder on 9/11 as a trampoline for their perennial attempts to leap past the First Amendment. They bathe themselves shamelessly in the World Trade Center ashpile, as Representative Randy Cunningham (R-California) did when he declared, "Ask the men and women who stood on top of the World Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: pass this amendment." Representative Cunningham might want to lay off the Ouija board. Of course jaded folks like myself might also suspect that Representative Cunningham is using the burning flag like a matador to divert attention away from recent disclosures that he accepted financial favors from a corporation he helped to procure lucrative government contracts for.

The fetish-object approach to liberty undermines what should be our core virtues by seeking to align the actions of the government with the soul of the American people. Such are the hollow virtues of the devout. In this asinine inversion of what's important, the cloth representation becomes filled with the magical spirit of America, killed by the fire breathing Zippo. I can't help but be reminded of the religious police who thwarted the rescue of women dying in a burning building in Saudi Arabia for fear that they might come out with their clothes burned off. If this is the rhetorical height of our political class, we may as well legislate through curse and counter curse. (Lord knows I'd like to give Social Security privatization the evil eye.)

What should unite Americans is not a religious ideology or a policy approach, and certainly not a way in which we all choose to pursue our happiness. What's supposed to unite us is a respect -- though not a worship -- for the system of government that our predecessors devised, a democratic system reaffirmed each year by our participation. Constitutionally fireproofing the flag or enshrining the hatred of gay people into our national document might make for juicy red-state meat, but they are no more a celebration of our country than Southern lynch mobs were tourist bureaus.

It's the most ignorant form of patriotism that bays the loudest, a patriotism that would have the United States morph into a Christian Iran and yet still pretend to embody freedom. True patriots understand that what makes our country singular is its legal protection of dissent, no matter how different from one another its citizens may be. Freedom isn't for thin-skinned wimps and it shouldn't be trusted with Orwellian knuckle-draggers who would have you belief that they honor liberty through its elimination. As much as it pains me, Republicans like Rove have as much right to be provocatively vicious as some protestor has to incite outrage by flaming Old Glory. Liberals should be proud of the fact that we actually have the fortitude to handle grown-up freedom, even when it hurts.

PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.