the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Soldiers have been risking their lives with great courage for two centuries for the abstract idea that we now call “the United States of America”, beginning in a time when we did not have the symbols for that idea that we use today, including the flag, including even the words “United States of America”. But even then it was an article of faith that an essential element of that abstraction was freedom. By 1791 that freedom had been specified to include the right to pronounce views which opposed those of the majority, in whatever language was deemed appropriate by the speaker.
The main argument used against flag burning is that it insults those who have fought and died, in their own words, “for the flag”. Let us take that notion of insult as the heart of the matter. What could be more insulting than to assume that our soldiers cannot distinguish between a physical symbol and the concepts it represents? What could be more offensive than to send brave young patriots off to die for a cloth? How many lost their lives having been patronized since enlistment as too simple to appreciate the grand concepts of political pluralism and civil liberties?
The secularist defense against curtailing political expression is to condemn seven times the manner of expression and condemn once the attack on expressive freedom. After the supreme court ruled state laws on flag burning unconstitutional, nationalists immediately called for a constitutional amendment. Secularists opposed this, but only after passing a federal law against flag burning which they knew would also be found unconstitutional. This was not merely cynical and cowardly; it was a setback to the cause. Instead of defending the rights in the first amendment, they defended the first amendment itself, as, ironically, a sacred icon in the patriotic religion. This did nothing to ease the populace out of its doctrinaire standpoint, especially when matching the public indignation with a liberal amount of hand wringing at the vile nature of the flag-burning protest.
Flag burning is not vile. It is crude. It is not particularly creative. It is horribly overdone ― for such a powerful attack on the symbolism that so many honor to be used to protest anything that merely provokes anger, which should be quite a lot, is extreme. Those who burn flags should already have decided that the objects they represent are utterly negative, irredeemably wicked. They should be saying to those who hold the symbol dear that they are duped, duped by evil, and that the institution should be torched as well. I am certainly no fan of the United States government, and I would see it dismantled, but flag burning should be no less than a declaration of war. Of course, in their hyperbolic way, flag burners would certainly claim that it is a declaration of war. But I have no patience with hyperbole, not when war is the subject. War is hell, and I mean that literally.
But to ban hyperbole, to ban crudity, to ban insult, is to eliminate completely freedom of expression. There is no need to protect the inoffensive. There is no need to protect the popular. There can be no growth if we make a point of hearing only that which we already support. Not, I suppose, that those who would ban flag burning are interested in growth, in truth, or even in freedom. The rhetoric may say so, but this is easy speech, meaningless, and hardly worth the protection that it does not need.
© O.T. FORD
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