Well, it must be politickin’ time again!
On Monday, June started with President Trump hitting the metaphorical campaign trial during a conference call by imploring governors to help him—among other things—push for laws criminalizing flag burning. The impetus for this was born of the violence that’s broken out as an adjunct to the protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. So, once again an idea has raised its ugly bipartisan head—just in time for the 2020 election.
After all, just because we can’t leave the house doesn’t mean we can’t bang the pots, does it?
I call this “bipartisan” because that is exactly what it is. Only 15 years ago, then-Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored such a bill. Before her, President George H. W. Bush tried this routine in 1989, and God knows how many minor name senators and representatives have trotted this one out before and between those years, and since.
Protecting the flag from matches has become a go-to gimmick for politicians of all stripes looking to pander. Call it the “I need something to stump on syndrome.”
And each time it’s gotten traction, the Supreme Court has kicked it to the curb.
I expect and really hope that this latest edition goes as far as the previous attempts have, which is nowhere.
There are more than enough reasons to protect us from these protectors of the flag, so let me quickly walk through a few basic ones before presenting the main one.
First there is the law or amendment or whatever itself. When Hitler rose to the presidency in the late 30s, one of his first acts was to forbid even insulting the Nazi flag. Guys, do you really want to keep that kind of company?
But let’s put the Hitler reference aside. After all, it’s too cheap, easy, and most certainly overused—although I couldn’t resist it.
Here’s one: property rights. That is an aspect of our lives that has slowly drifted away, which I regret, but I think here is worth examining. Once I buy a product, it is mine to use however I see fit. If I purchase a car and choose to let it rust in the garage unused, that’s my business. Likewise, the flag.
I’ve always maintained that those upset by the act should simply ask the person burning the flag, “How much you pay for that?” followed by “Got good use out of it, did you?”
Now if someone burns a flag that is another’s property, whether public or private, then we have a problem. Someone else paid for that one, and some stranger doesn’t get to make that decision. I’ll concede that I’ve seen more wasteful uses of taxpayer money than a fifty-buck flag although I’d bet, it being a government purchase, we probably paid about five times that price.
Still, the point is that unless it belongs to you, you don’t get to burn it without legal repercussions, but that is a property rights issue, not one of desecration.
However, here is my biggest argument against such statutes, no matter what guise they come under. It takes a bit to explain, but hang with me here.
What is a flag?
Let’s start there. Well, there are two definitions germane to this issue. The first is literal, the second symbolic.
Literally, a flag is a visual representation of a group (nation, state, school, sports team, whatever) that is predetermined to be of a certain color, pattern, and design as well as a specific shape. So literally, a flag (ensign, pennant, banner, or whatever) is a piece of cloth consisting of pre-arranged patterns of specific colors either dyed that way or stitched together from multiple pieces of cut and colored cloth.
Then, there is its symbolic significance, which is what cuts to the heart of the matter here. So, what is a symbol? A symbol is an object that is both what it is itself but also takes on a special meaning—usually spiritual or emotional. In the case of nations, the flag represents the core value of the nation that utilizes it as a symbol. The hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union was no design of happenstance.
How about the United States of America? What does this nation represent? I’d recommend talking to people not born here but rather those who came from outside countries to become part of this one. I’d predict that probably the most popular responses could likely be narrowed down to two basic words: “opportunity” and “liberty.”
One can easily argue that both are inter-related, but for the moment, I focus on the specifics of liberty. Because of the emotional aspects of symbols, it’s only natural for people to get personally attached to them. However, liberty dictates that people are allowed to offend as long as they do not cause harm, and hurting others’ feelings does not fit the bill of being “harm,” no matter what anyone says.
In fact, another appropriate response to flag burners would to laugh while reminding them of the fact that heir freedom to do so without legal repercussions only verifies the freedoms this nation honors.
However, whenever a politician goes public waving the grand banner of “we must protect the flag” but insists that, in order to do so, we must allow some law forbidding people from causing that flag any damage, what the argument boils down to is that we will remove a freedom in order to protect freedom, a line of reasoning that makes as much sense as the latest President Bush’s sentiments of having “abandoned the free market in order to save it” to justify the passage of TARP bank bailout during the housing crunch of 2008.
Now, if anyone is comfortable with that rationale, I submit that the symbolic significance of the American flag has already been destroyed.
It has become nothing more than the literal collection of pre-determined arrangement of colors deliberately shaped, and once the concept behind the representation is lost—in this case the notion of liberty and free expression—then we’re really up the creek.
In that case, may as well burn it anyway.