What You Should Think About Flag Burning

“If you want a symbolic gesture, don’t burn the flag; wash it.”

–Norman Thomas

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?

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3 Responses to What You Should Think About Flag Burning

  1. maxwyvern says:

    The flag burning issue, along with the notion that patriotism is proven by the prominent display of flags and similar symbols of love for our country, has pretty much turned me against any appreciation for the American flag. ‘My country right or wrong’ smacks strongly to me of primitive tribalism and would seem obviously to be a sentiment we should be far beyond at this point in our social development as a species but so evidently are not. Tribalism seems to be a strong human instinct, and I allow myself to indulge in it at the level of professional and, to a lesser extent, amateur sports. My old hometown baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, gets my undying love no matter how many consecutive losing seasons they string together, while my son’s little league team also gets my strong affection. In the latter case, however, it’s much harder to demonize the enemy since they’re just little boys so much like my own. Seeing this exposes the folly of considering anyone an enemy out of purely tribal motivations, be it other nationalities or members of another team. In the latter case it’s pretty much harmless, in the former it’s deadly.

  2. Demonweed says:

    I see where this perspective comes from, but I do not agree with yielding ground so. People scarce on rational thoughts regarding public policy may compensate by becoming more heavily invested in national symbols. Yet to accept the idea that they are right to claim a monopoly on patriotism seems to me a lesser variation on accepting the overall folly of being thoughtlessly devoted to the status quo.

    I don’t support using the flag to make people angry, but I also don’t support surrendering it to know-nothing warmongers. However problematic it may be, some American militants are our neighbors and we all must live with the consequences of their inputs to the political process. As I see it, deliberately increasing animosity with that sort only makes related problems worse, while defusing their anger at least provides some slight increase in the chance that they will let something more useful than hate serve as the chief influence on their voting behavior.

  3. maxwyvern says:

    Still, we have to share a country with people who are ‘scarce on rational thought’ so we must find a way to work toward supporting the ideals and principles upon which the country was founded without bolstering the illusion that it’s all about rallying around the flag. I don’t intend to give the flag the finger when the national anthem is played or anything to directly antagonize the jingoistic fools. Actually, I tend to look supremely patriotic when the anthem is played because I’m one of the few that appreciates it musically and I enjoy the challenge of trying to sing it.

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