Note: The following is a guest post from fellow J-Blogger and ex-frum guy SL Aronovitz of Mishlei Shlomo.Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Once again, right-wing members of our Congress are attempting to push through a constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning and/or desecration of the American flag. Here are a few of my thoughts in the issue.
For starters, Republicans might have a much easier time selling their amendment proposal if they would add a restriction requiring the production of all American flags be performed exclusively by American citizens, within America’s borders, and made of American grown or manufactured materials. If one is going to make such a big deal over a dyed strip of cloth, it makes sense to require that symbol to be made, sold, and handled by those who live by its values and under its jurisdiction. It cheapens the symbolism of the flag to have it mass produced of cheap materials with the profits going to foreign nationals who do not share our core values.
If anyone wishes to whine about desecration of a national symbol, maybe we should be taking a serious look at the commercialization of the flag. Drive by any auto dealership or sports outfitter and you will see rows of large American flags flying out front, suggesting to passersby that this particular retailer is somehow so unbelievably uber-American that he deserves your business more than other establishments because buying from him is nothing less than patriotic heroism. It should likewise become illegal to make underwear, socks, a tea cozy, bathing suit, or any other item depicting the ‘stars and bars’ in a mundane manner. If we are to attribute some holiness to the American flag, then it seems we should not treat it lightly or cheapen it by overuse and misuse as well.
Allegiance to symbolisms without genuine commitment to ideals is just a meaningless gesture. Why are we proposing to treat the banner representing our values with greater reverence than for those who live under or by the sentiment which it evokes? Three nations considered most hostile (at least as they are portrayed as hostile) to American values are China, Cuba, and Iran. All three of these nations ban the burning of their national symbol. As Americans we view these nations as human rights violators of the highest degree and if, in fact, they are as bad as we are told, what does that say about our nation when we begin to enact the exact same restrictions on free speech and expression?
In addition, if stopping the destruction of nationalistic symbols was so vital to our democracy, then why didn’t Adams, Jefferson, or Madison (not to mention a few dozen other presidents since) ever consider it a priority? I am sure that there were any number of Tories, Barbary pirates, Confederates, and Native Americans who, in the heat of battle or moral outrage, found various ways to desecrate that precious symbol of the American Union, yet no one in government (that I know of) ever proposed altering the Constitution to prevent it.
I understand why many aren’t worried about such a law. Most probably agree that flag burning (or the burning of effigies as well) appears a bit extreme when we consider what ‘burning’ itself implies i.e. the complete annihilation of the thing or idea under protest. One has to be pretty mad to set something ablaze. Yet, history also tells us that where we see burning flags we can also envision the burning of books and, soon enough, the burning of human beings, as all those images commingle in fertile and (I believe) rightfully suspicious imaginations. Personally, I have little faith in the ability of the masses to exercise restraint, and if there is a ‘slippery slope’ to avoid, it is the one that creates a mob mentality set to run amok. Maybe, some would argue, we need to ‘nip this in the bud’ before it gets out of control.
In all fairness, however, not all protestation via combustion leads to utter societal conflagration. Vietnam Era draftees burned their Selective Service cards and the Women’s movement cremated more than few bras in their day without the entire nation going up in smoke or feeling threatened by their respective messages. Somehow I think that America can withstand a few well placed smolderings here and there without falling into utter chaos. We’ve been there before and survived. Some people don’t even remember it happening, let alone have their lives irrevocably altered for the worse by said events.
Certainly, we all imagine that these pyro-prone protestors can find more meaningful, productive, and peaceful ways to get their message across to others, but those methods aren’t always effective. We live in a media age where only the most outrageous acts receive any attention. If you wish to be seen or heard, you must rise above and beyond the norm or shatter the common paradigms of others just enough to piss them off. If you want to be on the evening news, set an American flag on fire in front of a military recruiting office. Unfortunately, your message probably won’t ever be heard since it would be completely obscured by the news of the fire itself and your subsequent arrest. Yet, you will get noticed, and in the mind of the guy holding the matches and gasoline, his mission is accomplished simply by making others angry.
One has to remember that the ‘slippery slope’ argument runs in both directions. As reluctant as I may be to endorse flag burning as a form of positive dissent, to outlaw such protest offers a new license for government to, in the spirit of protecting the ideal, prohibit other types of protest where fire may or may not be involved. I have to yet to see a government take back or even restrain itself when granted new powers. The 'slippery-slope' the angry mob tumbles onto ends as quickly as it comes, but when governments takes that plunge the effects are expanding and everlasting. Governments, unlike the unwashed rabble, also tend to be better organized and heavily armed. So in this case, in spite of my initial fears, I’ll take my chances with the raging masses and allow them start a campfire here and there.
That being said, I am equally reluctant to offer support for any law restricting our 1st Amendment right to Free Speech. Free Speech is not meant to only protect the speech and ideas that most citizens like or agree to. In fact, it is intended to allow a relatively unrestricted forum for ideas that most may find offensive or even treasonous. Just as we ignore, become repulsed, or even debate for or against various ideas, actions taken to promote those ideas can be argued or rejected like any other. If those who burn American flags to send a particular message are duly ignored, then they will no longer have any reason to keep doing it. Their right to speak out is the very same right I must preserve so that when I have something to say, the liberty to speak my conscience remains unabridged.
Let’s not make an issue out of something that doesn’t occur very often, doesn’t really garner much support, or would lead, should we begin to prohibit such acts, to greater restrictions on our ability to seek redress from government through peaceful protest. Exactly how many flags are burned across our nation in recent years? Is this a solution seeking a problem that doesn’t exist? My suggestion is to tread with deliberate and patient caution.
The magic of the 1st Amendment is the universality of its scope. The right of the people to speak out is not based upon the likes, dislikes, or sensitivities of a majority opinion. If you are part of that majority, then having once in a while to tolerate some free speech you don’t like is not a high price to pay and you shouldn’t feel put out having heard it. Let it go in one ear and out the other as you do most things you hear these days.
“Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection.” (General Colin Powell)