Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Flag Amendment -- not a burning issue

Mark Steyn, as usual, has some insightful thoughts on the recent flag-desecration amendment passed by the House of Representatives.

Earlier this week I posted BonnieBlueFlag's passionate defense of the flag that she so dearly loves, as do we all, but it is clear that there are two differing conservative opinions on this matter of flag burning and I find myself agreeing with Steyn on this one, as much as I appreciate and understand BonnieBlueFlag's position. The long and the short of it is -- I'm against it on a number of grounds.

Now, I'm no lawyer, (but then again, look at the mess that lawyers have gotten us into in the recent Kelo "takings" decision in New London) but let's take a look at the nebulous wording of this amendment -- wording which can only lead to endless judicial mischief.

The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.

First of all -- what is meant by "physical desecration"? Let's look up the word "desecration" in the dictionary -- a curious word right off the bat, because it is a word usually associated with religion.

Webster's New Collegiate defines it this way:

desecration -- implies a loss of sacred character as through defilement or reduction to secular usage.

Right here I am caught up short. "Reduction to secular usage" imputes a religious symbolism to the flag, and elevates it to the status that the Muslims give their Koran, if we are to believe the prisoners in GITMO. The flag is a secular symbol of our nation. It is a symbol which all Americans recognize, whether they are religious or not. To give the flag sacred status virtually makes it the symbol of a state religion -- something the Constitution expressly forbids.
Further, what is meant by "physical" desecration? And -- what is meant by "Flag of the United States"? These terms are going to have to be specifically defined if this amendment is going to have any meaning. Do we really need to be wasting time on this?

Does "flag of the United States" mean any image of the flag? Every little hand held flag waved at a Fourth of July Celebration, and possibly dropped in the mud or stepped on or thrown away at the end of the day? Do they mean a tee-shirt with the flag printed on the chest? Do they mean wearing a flag patch on the back of your jeans? Or literally wrapping yourself in the flag as people are wont to do?
How about a beach towel in the pattern of the Starts and Stripes? Or a blanket? Is it a desecration to sit on it? To lie on it? To throw it on the ground and walk on it? Or is it a desecration of the flag to throw away paper plates bearing its image? Can't you just see the endless pointless litigation that this will bring about as the courts are called upon to examine whether or not a teenager desecrated the flag by wearing it on the seat of her very tight pants?

Or how about the great American pastime of putting the image of the flag on countless commercial products like beer cans, pop cans, furniture, clothing, trash cans, tourist items, etc.? I personally love to see the Stars and Stripes used in this way. To me it is a cheerful and joyous reminder of the boundless energy and optimism that is the America I love. I would hate to see all these innocent uses suddenly brought into question by mischievious suits brought by the very people who would disrespect the flag.

Ironically, through suits brought by such groups as people for the American Way and the ACLU I would fully expect to see these innocent and commercial uses of the flag called into question, and the Stars and Stripes could very well become some strangely worshipped and rarely seen item, so afraid will the average citizen be to run afoul of the Constitution.

Or perhaps we will have to have specially designated companies which will have the Federal Seal of Approval to manufacture the "Official Flag of the United States" -- with a tag attached which reads: Do not defile or desecrate this item under penalty of law persuant to the 28th Amendment to the Constitution." (It wasn't until I was much older that I got over my fear of removing those tags from mattresses and decorative pillows -- thankfully they now add the helpful words, "except by consumer" thereby saving countless future generations of children from the torments of guilt I suffered.)

Or we might see the opposite -- an endless series of protests involving mass burnings of the flag -- what shall we do then? Arrest them all?

Further, since burning the flag is the proper method of disposal, presumably this is not desecration. How then is burning it in protest a desecration? The only difference is motive. And motives are thoughts -- and opinions. Are we now making the thinking of thoughts, or the free expression thereof unconstitutional? Just as in the ill-thought-out hate crime legislation, this country should NOT be in the business of punishing motives or thoughts.

This amendment is nothing more than a frivolous waste of time by a do-nothing Congress which is spending the nation into bankruptcy, engaging in collegial comity at the expense of doing the hard work of the people, and is generally more concerned with lining their own pockets with political pork and feel-good gestures rather than taking hard decisions that the country desperately needs. If this is their answer to the crisis of national identity, than we are in more trouble than I thought. Meanwhile China arms herself in preparation for a war of aggression against us. Wrapping ourselves in the proud symbol of our nation and artifically elevating it to the status of a national religious object will not save us. And passing this amendment will not add one patriot to the ranks.

Here's Mark Steyn's take:

The strength of our nation has always been the freedom to express even odious or offensive speech -- and burning or otherwise vandalizing a flag is but one more means of expression, and should not be suppressed.

The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag burning last week, in the course of which Rep. Randy ''Duke'' Cunningham (Republican of California) made the following argument:

''Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: Pass this amendment."
Unlike Congressman Cunningham, I wouldn't presume to speak for those who died atop the World Trade Center. For one thing, citizens of more than 50 foreign countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, were killed on 9/11. Of the remainder, maybe some would be in favor of a flag-burning amendment; and maybe some would think that criminalizing disrespect for national symbols is unworthy of a free society.

And maybe others would roll their eyes and say that, granted it's been clear since about October 2001 that the federal legislature has nothing useful to contribute to the war on terror, and its hacks and poseurs prefer to busy themselves with a lot of irrelevant grandstanding with a side order of fries, but they could at least quit dragging us into it.

And maybe a few would feel as many of my correspondents did last week about the ridiculous complaints of ''desecration'' of the Quran by U.S. guards at Guantanamo -- that, in the words of one reader, ''it's not possible to 'torture' an inanimate object.''

That alone is a perfectly good reason to object to a law forbidding the "desecration" of the flag. For my own part, I believe that, if someone wishes to burn a flag, he should be free to do so. In the same way, if Democrat senators want to make speeches comparing the U.S. military to Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, they should be free to do so. It's always useful to know what people really believe.

. . . One of the big lessons of these last four years is that many, many beneficiaries of Western civilization loathe that civilization -- and the media are generally inclined to blur the extent of that loathing. At last year's Democratic Convention, when the Oscar-winning crockumentarian Michael Moore was given the seat of honor in the presidential box next to Jimmy Carter, I wonder how many TV viewers knew that the terrorist ''insurgents'' -- the guys who kidnap and murder aid workers, hack the heads off foreigners, load Down's syndrome youths up with explosives and send them off to detonate in shopping markets -- are regarded by Moore as Iraq's Minutemen.

...In other words, if the objection to flag desecration is that it's distasteful, tough. Like those apocryphal Victorian matrons who discreetly covered the curved legs of their pianos, the culture already goes to astonishing lengths to veil the excesses of those who are admirably straightforward in their hostility.

If people feel that way, why protect them with a law that will make it harder for the rest of us to see them as they are? One thing I've learned in the last four years is that it's very difficult to talk honestly about the issues that confront us. A brave and outspoken journalist, Oriana Fallaci, is currently being prosecuted for ''vilification of religion,'' which is a crime in Italy; a Christian pastor has been ordered by an Australian court to apologize for his comments on Islam. In the European Union, ''xenophobia'' is against the law. A flag-burning amendment is the American equivalent of the rest of the West's ever more coercive constraints on free expression. The problem is not that some people burn flags; the problem is that the world view of which flag-burning is a mere ritual is so entrenched at the highest levels of Western culture.

Banning flag desecration flatters the desecrators and suggests that the flag of this great republic is a wee delicate bloom that has to be protected. It's not. It gets burned because it's strong.

That's the point: A flag has to be worth torching. When a flag gets burned, that's not a sign of its weakness but of its strength. If you can't stand the heat of your burning flag, get out of the superpower business. It's the left that believes the state can regulate everyone into thought-compliance. The right should understand that the battle of ideas is won out in the open.


At 1:16 PM, Blogger Michael Morrison said...

Let's not be too general in our condemnation of lawyers.
We are letting just 900,000 or 990,000 rotten apples spoil the whole barrel.
OK, seriously, folks. Let's remember there were lawyers on the side of the Kelo victims, too, lawyers dedicated to individual rights and individual freedom.
Yes, the Institute for Justice, IJ, is also made up of lawyers, and even if they are the only lawyers to make it to Heaven, at least there will be lawyers there, which ruins one very good joke.
See http://www.oldjokes.blogspot.com.

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Billy D said...

Back in the late '70s and early '80s they tried to make it illegal to use the flag on clothing, or patches, all this crazy stuff, to force respect of it.
Now, if you try to force me to respect, aren't you violating the spirit of what it stands for?
Just one big joke. 4,000 abortions per day, the cities taking homes away from folks to build strip malls, and we're worrying about a flag?

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Pindar said...

Aussiegirl, thanks for posting another great article by Steyn, and also by adding two ideas that I never thought of (probably neither has Steyn): you say that you "personally love to see the Stars and Stripes used in this way. To me it is a cheerful and joyous reminder of the boundless energy and optimism that is the America I love"...I couldn't agree more...and you also worry that the average citizen, afraid to run afoul of such an amendment and the vague implications of "physical desecration", might stop displaying the flag completely...and how sad that would be!


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