“If you want a symbolic gesture, don’t burn the flag; wash it.”
What peculiar editorial sensibility television news has developed in our times. When Vice President Dick Cheney slept through a meeting of senior White House officials convened to discuss federal response to the California wildfires, that story was almost immediately cause for self-censorship. Now, it is not for me to say if the underlying truth tells us more about the man’s failing health or the man’s attitude regarding federal disaster relief. Yet to squelch national discussion before it even begins — isn’t that just the opposite of what the Fourth Estate ought to be doing?
On the flip side we have growing concern that the Vice President seems to have spent some time at a hunting club where the Confederate flag is flown. While this too may deserve a little national discussion, I don’t see it as nearly the kind of weighty matter that either “the Vice President is prone to uncontrollable napping” or “the Vice President doesn’t care about disaster relief” ought to be. I agree with those who argue that it is wrong to glorify symbols of the Confederacy. Yet I also agree with those who argue that it is unreasonable for any person to limit his associations to only those people who have never done anything wrong in public.
Perhaps silliest of all in this is the conservative talking point, “how dare anyone get upset about this when those same people encourage burning American flags!” For one, that is the same sleazy dishonesty that comes out whenever one of them argues that some Americans are pro-abortion. Practically no one actually wants to see more abortions performed in this nation. It does not take extraordinary cognitive abilities to understand that there is a world of difference between advocating that women who terminate their own pregnancies should not be designated criminals and calling for more pregnancy terminations.
Likewise, arguing that burning American flags should be protected as free speech is not at all the same as arguing that burning American flags is a good idea. If anything, those who would make a special exception to one of the most fundamental principles of any free and open society, for no better reason than the protection of a hallowed symbol, are much more destructive than political protesters defiling flags. The extent of outrage amongst the political establishment at this tactic only serves to give it more power and meaning. A legal ban would go even further down that path.
It all goes back to a theme I hope to make central in this project. Political action driven by emotion is really no more sensible than political action determined by throwing darts at an array of options. Emotion is not reason. The basis for seeking some special protected status for a particular arrangement of cloth and color is pure emotion. If that emotion can be set aside, the only reasonable arguments for it involve promoting authoritarianism. For people who have already sided with democracy against autocracy, those reasonable arguments are trumped by the very thinking that gave rise to this nation, and thus also all its symbols, in the first place.
Unfortunately, the ideal of separating emotion from political thought is at odds with increasingly popular methods of engaging in public political discourse. Flag burning should never be criminalized, but that does not mean that it is ever a good idea either. After all, it draws its power as an act of protest from the way it inflames the hatreds of emotionally overwrought patriots. This will tend to discourage them from participating in reasonable discourse and giving due consideration to any substantive grievances protesters may have with existing policies.
In some ways it is a metaphor for the vast array of pundits and pseudojournalists who find political hate to be their own stock and trade. Letting the First Amendment cover the act of flag burning is so obviously not the same thing as encouraging that more flags be burnt. Yet again and again and again that warped view is popularized by public figures who somehow addict their audiences to the visceral stimulation of being whipped into a frenzy of hostility toward people who take different political views. The demonization of political liberalism is a failure of, not a function of, human reasoning.
Political liberals may find themselves in similar situations as specific figures, movements, or even an entire party become targets of hate. What may begin as rational objections to horrible public policy devolves into irrational objections based on strong emotional reactions to particular names or labels. In political discourse I am no saint myself. Matters of such great consequence naturally prompt strong emotional responses. In some contexts, revealing the presence of a little “fire in the belly” can actually make language more persuasive. Yet in many contexts, especially those involving adversarial clash, any departure from rational appeals is both a sign of weakness (as the best adversaries can turn venom back upon its user) and an opportunity to derail the discussion (as the worst adversaries will eagerly abandon substance in order to focus on pure animosity.)
So, in the end, I support the widespread consensus that flag burning is far from an ideal way to convey thoughts on politics. It may be a powerful way to convey sentiments on politics, but no good comes from reducing politics to a purely sentimental crusade. In the end, burning flags awaken within a certain segment of our society their capacity to be wholly irrational about political clash. Among others such acts also may enhance the strength of rational critiques leveled at the agenda of involved protesters’. It may be true that many status quo policies are many orders of magnitude more abominable than the burning of American flags. Yet fighting hate with hate only insures one outcome — that hate will triumph in the end. If we cannot do better than that, what is the point of speaking up in the first place?