American Flag Burning Protests: Oxymoron or Just Good Old Free Expression?

After seeing someone on the local news say that the proposed amendment to ban flag burning in the U. S. failed to pass the Senate by one vote (true) and then proceeded to extrapolate on how “close” the vote was with “scarcely over 50%” voting against the amendment (absolutely insane “reporting”), I decided to go with this story among all the others out there. (I decided this after nearly choking on my coffee and throwing a napkin toward the t.v.–it was all I had handy that wouldn’t actually damage the television.)

Okay, it’s one thing for Joe and Joanne Schmoe to be confused about the requirement that such amendments pass by two-thirds (that’s 2/3) of the vote, but for a newsperson on a news program to get that wrong is just appalling. Maybe instead of worrying about Fluff and Pedro being at Fenway tonight, the local media needs to worry about the sorry state of education in this country.

The actual Senate vote (the House had already passed the amendment, that’s how it ended up in the Senate) was indeed close, and by close I mean that it didn’t quite have the number of votes needed to pass (shy one): 66-34, with fourteen of those 66 votes for approval of the amendment to ban flag burning coming from Democrats (including, surprisingly, California’s Diane Feinstein).

We’ve heard all the arguments on this one, and it’s tough to decide what is “right” (at least for me) because of the meaning with which we as a patriotic country imbue our flag. It angers me to see our flag burned by our own citizens. Perhaps oddly, I don’t really mind seeing the crazies around the world do it for a few of reasons: 1.) I sincerely doubt that they would dare to do so on our soil, even though they legally can, 2.) I know that they probably can’t burn their own flags in their own countries, so the irony is not lost on me, and 3.) at the end of the day, it’s the impotent act of impotent people.

But it does bug me when our own citizens do it, and of course that is WHY they do it, to make a statement–even if they are too ignorant to understand the full implication of their statement. For example, burning the flag to protest war (one of the favorites of the flag burners) is a bassackwards way to make an anti-war statement, right? I mean, let’s see, the flag in part represents hard-won freedoms, freedoms won during war and defended during war, freedoms in other words that the flag burners wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the very war/s they protest. Full blown irony. And they don’t even get it; in fact, they will actually say that they have the right to do this, that our troops (who many anti-war people support) are fighting for their right to do exactly what they are doing to protest the troops fighting in a war to protect their right to . . . well, you see how it comes back around. Strange. Almost makes you feel sorry for them.

Another wonderfully illogical argument offered up by the flag burners is the fact (and it is a fact) that the proper way to dispose of a (tattered, worn) United States flag is to burn it. According to the actual legislation on flag disposal, The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning (Title 4, Chap 1, Sec 8, item k). So let’s take a look at this point of law: one of the conditions for disposal by burning is that the flag no longer be a “fitting emblem of display,” in other words, in good condition. The televised flag burnings I’ve seen take place on U. S. soil have been of flags that are in good condition (how else can we recognize them as U. S. flags?). A second condition is that it be “destroyed in a dignified way,” and there really is nothing dignified about a collection of shouting, screaming, red faced, and sweating morons putting Bic lighters to Old Glory and then hopping around as they try to avoid being burned by the burning object they are holding in their bare hands (before, that is, unceremoniously dumping it into a metal trash bin). But maybe that’s just me, maybe someone else sees that as dignified. And according to the quoted legislation, both of these terms must be met, not one, not the other, both.

Another odd pronouncement by the flag burners and flag burning advocates is an extension of the “make a statement” idea in that it is a protected First Amendment right. Okay, so let’s look at that. If the proper way to destroy a tattered flag is the dignified burning of the object, and the protesters are not meeting this requirement (though they argue in the same breath that they are, want it both ways), they must be making a political statement, and we allow that in our country. I’m on board with that. But we also have laws on the books that effectively curtail freedom of expression, freedom of speech. For example, I can’t go into a crowded movie theater and yell “Fire!”, I can’t go to the airport and say that I have a bomb (even if I don’t), and I can’t verbally threaten anyone or perform any act of “hate speech.” I also can’t threaten, verbally or in writing, the life of the President of the United States. I can’t go into a public school and say the Lord’s Prayer in front of a class of third graders (or twelfth graders, for that matter), and I can’t say “Merry Christmas” in a government building. I’m not sure, but I think that I would also be arrested for saying the Pledge of Allegiance in a public school, certainly if I used the term “under God.” If I were privy to state secrets, I could not tell them to an agent of a foreign government (treason). So there are all manner of things we can’t say here in the good ole U. S. of A. A blanket and “true” freedom of speech does not exist, never did.

I don’t like to see a flag burned, and I wouldn’t vote against an amendment banning flag desecration should it ever come to the states for ratification, but it’s not a huge problem for me; if someone wants to do that, let them (until or if it ever becomes illegal, of course). At the end of the day, all it shows is that they are so enthusiastic about our country’s freedoms that they wish to exercise them in this (I think ignorant and ironic) display. It hurts me to see it, and it hurts me to see it in a time of war, when our troops need support, our protests and flag burning demoralize OUR guys and pump up the “bad guys.” We know this because North Vietnamese leaders and generals told us so after we lost the Vietnam war; they hung on BECAUSE they saw what was happening in protest in the U. S., and they knew we wouldn’t have the heart or balls to stay in and fight the good fight (this is, of course, a paraphrase, I don’t recall reading anywhere the terms “heart and balls” or “fight the good fight”).

23 thoughts on “American Flag Burning Protests: Oxymoron or Just Good Old Free Expression?

  1. I agree with you on this one Fuzzy. It’s sad and hurtful that some people have to make such a display but in the end I believe behavior like this comes back to bite people in the butt. I don’t think we should ban burning the flag but maybe a free trip out for anyone who doesn’t want to be here? Good post.

  2. My opinion on all of these “vanity amendments” is simple.

    The Constitution is the framework of our system of government, and as such its amendments should limited to those that are deemed critical to our existence as a democracy and a society.

    I’m offended by those who feel its more important to amend our Constitution to keep gays from marrying and flags from being burnt than it was to amend it to insure women equal rights.

    I believe that the Constitution is not something to be played with for political gain – and that the people we pay to govern our country have a lot more important matters that they should be dealing with on a national level.

  3. lmao, Scarlett, I agree with that!

    Em, good to see you post again! 🙂 I came “this close” to discussing the untouchable Constitution, but then decided that a whole blog could be dedicated to the inconsistencies in liberal (particularly, but not exclusively) stances on the matter. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this argument you’ve posited gets trotted out a lot when the proposed amendments are conservative, but when the amendments being proposed are liberal, the liberal argument is that the Constitution is a “living” document (i.e. open to interpretation and amendment).

    I just don’t think it can be both ways. The Constitutional authors would be horrified at the very thought, so remaining true to the spirit of the document (which you seem to be implying we do by limiting amendments) becomes a bit tricky when amendments “deemed critical for our existence as a democracy and society” fly in the face of the original concept of all three (the Constitution, our gov’t/democracy, and our forefather’s view of society).

    And of course this begs the question, deemed critical by whom? The system is set up that the people are somewhat empowered through elected officials, so isn’t it the elected officials who deem things critical or not? The bill failed this time (as it did in the early ’90’s), so the point’s moot, but you do bring up interesting points.

  4. I may have selective memory here, but I can’t think of a “liberal” amendment to compare reaction to. For myself, I’ve held the same position since high school – and would feel the same about any vanity amendment no matter whether it came from the liberal or conservative side of the table.

    Where I think the average American becomes confused (and politicians take advantage of that confusion) is that they believe everything must be a Federal law. All rights not handed to the federal government by way of the Constitution are reserved to the states. Our framers had important reasons for doing things that way, beyond just the obvious that states were unwilling to grant too much power to a central government. One of those reasons was the recognition that this was a big country (even at 13 states – it was a large and varied population as countries went at that time).

    With the varied geography and populations that we have today, I think its still important to separate national issues from state and local ones. I’m generally pleased when SCOTUS decides not to meddle in state law – because one size does not fit all. We are a much more mobile society than in the past, and so individuals generally have the flexibility to move somewhere else if they don’t agree with a particular states laws – or for that matter, they can stay and work to change those laws.

    In the case of flagburning – I know that SCOTUS has determined that this action is protected under free speech – HOWEVER there are plenty of ways for states to prevent this from happening – making it illegal to burn anything in a public place, for example.

    Although I think flag desecration is a bad thing – it troubles to think of it as an action so heinous that it warrants a constitutional amendment to punish it. Our flag is a symbol of our country – it is not a god or an idol to be worshipped, and elevating the crime to a constitutional amendment level makes me feel as if we have misplaced our priorities.

  5. I’m certainly not advocating worshipping the flag! That’s preposterous. But it is a symbol of our country and its values (why else would anyone want to burn it in protest of our country and its values?), and as such it is a bit more than some old bit of cloth. And it can be more than a bit of cloth and less than a god or idol to be worshipped, can’t it?

    If the politicians are pandering to the people, to their constituents, in trying to push the amendment to ban flag desecration, then wouldn’t it follow that they believe that the people want such an amendment? How is it okay not to do what the people want? If this is all about political gain, as you say, then what do they have to gain by doing something no one wants done? I’m not following the logic in this argument.

    Anyway, I guess this is just another issue that we’ll have to agree to disagree on; I think that our national symbol is a national issue, not a state issue (the burning of state flags is a state issue), and you obviously feel otherwise. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, as I stated in my post, I don’t have a problem with anyone, you included, rushing out and burning a flag today. It might sadden and anger me, but a lot of things that are perfectly legal sadden and anger me that I can’t do anything about.

  6. I would say the flag is as much, if not more so a symbol of the United States than the Constitution, so Em’s point doesn’t work for me either. You can walk that Constitution around the world and half the people won’t know what it is or be able to read it, but you can fly the flag in any country and everyone knows what and who it stands for.

  7. Well, that’s an interesting point, too, Scarlett. I mean no one is burning copies of the Constitution, and we don’t have national Constitution Day. We don’t, as citizens of the United States, pledge allegiance to the Constitution. We don’t, by law, post a copy of the Constitution to be displayed 24 hours a day anywhere (and we do the flag). Food for thought.

  8. I am totally thinking with my heart here…but I love the United States Flag. Yup, i do….what it stands for and what it means to me. I feel angry and hurt when I see a flag being burnt. When the flag is being burnt in another country, I feel afraid. When it is happening on our own soil, I want o kick ass! Kick it right out of our country. Want to burn the flag get the hell out! I think burning the American flag is like burning a bit of it’s soul and mine and every man and woman who has lost their life fighting in the name of that flag ! This subject is so dear to my heart that I am not going to make any further comment. I also would not invite anyone to criticise or remark on my feelings. Letting you know ahead of time it would not be receieved well. LOL!!!! I definately, definately can’t tolerate burning our flag!

  9. Let me see if I can explain it a bit better….(the logic as to why they vote as they do). -6/23-6/25 2006 survey (link to the info below – Do you favor or oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and state governments to make it illegal to burn the American flag?

    54% said no amendment 45% said yes

    Of the ones who said yes to the amendment 40% would be upset if it didn’t pass
    Of the ones who said no to the amendment only 20% would be upset if an amendment did pass

    So, do the math and it is more advantageous for a politician to vote yes – he’ll tick off less voters that way.

    Our founders weren’t much for direct representation – one vote, one man = one elected official in the federal government – originally only congresspeople were elected that way – presidents were, and still are, decided by the electoral college and senators were appointed by state legislatures. I think they weren’t sure that majority should rule – perhaps they were concerned about a mob mentality – (sometimes I am too).

    This suggests that the intent was that we elect our politicians not to simply vote what the majority wants – but to vote what they believe is in their constituency’s best interest. In this case interestingly enough – the vote in the House of Representatives was quite a bit different percentage wise from that in the Senate.

    So you tell me – which, if either group, is voting in accordance with either what their constituency wants or what they believe is in their constituents best interest – vs what is likely to get them more reelection votes.

  10. Well, I would venture to guess that more people in the world recognize Britney Spears than President Bush – but does that make the better known one a more important symbol? Of course not.

    The constitution isn’t a symbol – it is a document that contains laws that we live by. Whether or not someone recognizes it when they see it – or if they burn it or toss it in the trash doesn’t destroy what it means.

    I feel the same way about the American flag.

  11. I didn’t get your point about politicians playing the Constitution for political gain, and I still don’t. Sorry, Em, you seem to be going in circles on this one, but I may just be reading it wrong.

    Thanks Amber and Sissy (and good to see you here Sissy!). Huggs BBB/RLF/BFF

  12. Okay, I’m STILL trying to work this out, Em. Are you saying that the amendment to ban flag burning is not an important issue to anyone except the politicians who think it so only in terms of voting according to whom they are less likely to upset (and therefore presumably stand a better chance of re-election)? And if that is the case then those folks they don’t want to upset seem to think it’s an important issue. Or are you saying they don’t care who they upset because it is their job to do what they think is in our (and not their own, political and fawning the voters) best interest? Can it be both ways?

    And what, if anything at all, does any of that have to do with the flag burning amendment. I’m just an average American, after all, and I find it pretty amazing that anyone can claim that the American flag is not a national issue, especially based on an idea that the only reason anyone proposed it or voted for it did so because that it would please the voters (or not please them, but help them in some way they can’t grasp).

    Do you honestly imagine that there is anyone in the world who does not know who George W. Bush is? Come on! Everyone across the globe hates us (all of us, no exceptions) and they hate hate hate George W. They know what he looks like. They burn him in effigy, for goodness’ sake. They hold up posters of him and rip them to shreds before setting them afire along with our flag. And if someone in the relatively technologically savvy world knows who Britney Spears is, you can bet your bottom dollar, they absolutely know who George Bush is (unless they’re preteens or whatever). And is that point even relevant? Since when is George Bush the equivalent of our Constitution and Britney Spears the equivalent of our Flag?

    I can’t work out why you oppose the flag burning amendment from reading what you’ve said so far (and that’s the nature of blogging, really, so no big deal, but it’s also why I steer you back to the original point). I don’t see how your conflicting view of politicians’ motives really relates to the specific amendment; obviously, if you take that view, it must apply to all amendments, including ones for women’s rights or regarding gay marriage. Are they pandering to voters or doing what is best for them, even if the voter’s themselves are too stupid to know it? These, btw, pretty much cover any vote? If you disagree with the vote, it doesn’t count because it’s just made to make the voter’s happy because those damned polls said it would, and if it’s a vote you like but no one else does, well, we just don’t get it so the politicians have to work in the voter’s best interest, going against those pesky polls. At the end of the day, this formula can be slapped on any amendment or vote out there, so it is not a per issue deal. But I am very interested in knowing why you oppose this particular amendment, not just how you explain its having been written, proposed, passed through the House, and rejected by the Senate. What about the amendment itself is unconstitutional or wrong headed or threatening to the fabric of our country as it’s been written in the Constitution. I’m not being sarcastic, I sincerely want to hear your answer. My whole blog was about the fact that I’ve never heard a good argument FOR flag burning, and if you have one, I would be totally intrigued and open minded in hearing it.

  13. OK – everybody doesn’t hate us across the globe…and I say that as someone who has traveled to Egypt, Mexico, Canada, and several other countries since 9/11. They may dislike our government and their policies….but that is a far cry from hating us.

    I’m against any amendment that doesn’t answer an important need of our citizenry, generally because our society has shifted in some way since the Constitution was written….therefore I would have been against the 18th amendment – and clearly it was a mistake as it was later repealed. Other than that – the amendments deal with two topics – administrative ones relating to the running of the government (collecting taxes, increasing politicial salaries, term limits, presidential succession, method of election) and spelling out the rights of the citizenry – guns, protection from unreasonable government intrusion, right to vote for various segments of the population, that sort of thing.

    And arguing for flag burning – from my perspective thats a straw man argument. To me, ANY amendment that doesn’t meet the criteria stated doesn’t belong in the Constitution.

    And if your whole blog was simply on the fact that you’d never heard a good argument for flagburning, I apologize that I misread you. I thought your blog asked the question “should we or should we not have a constitutional amendment re flag desecration” and that is the vein I answered in.

    Hope that covered most of what you’ve asked. As to why our national politicians voted the way that they did….clearly they did not vote in accordance with the opinion expressed by the American public in various polls – because if they had – we would be looking at pretty much a 50/50 vote in both houses of Congress and that’s not what we got.

    Perhaps these folks did research the subject and voted in a way that they felt best served their constituents.

    My personal opinion is that this amendment was brought up as a way to deflect attention from the real issues that need to be addressed, the economy, the war, education reform, and immigration. It’s a great attack point in the upcoming congressional elections where someone is trying to upset an incumbent Democrat – So and So voted against protecting our flag – he thinks its OK to burn it.

  14. Very interesting breakdown of amendments, I’ll have to look at that; you may have a point. And of course I wanted to hear people’s opinions about flag desecration, but I was stating my position (which is I’ve never heard a good argument against the amendment) rather than pointedly asking.

    But then I’ve rarely pointedly asked that sort of question, though I can see how my title might be read that way. I had sort of hoped for the title = question / essay = answer structure, but perhaps was unable to pull it off.

  15. Hey, you two aren’t mad at each other are you? I hope not. Boy you two can really debate an issue. Now as far as my opinion on flag burning…I don’t really know if I have an opinion on that. I think I would base this one on emotion like Amber says she is doing. And if I base this opinion on flag burning, I would have to say that if I saw people in this country that are citizens burning a flag out of anger because they passionately believe they are getting their point across about a war or a policy they disagree with, then I would be sad that they thought they had to resort to such extreme measures. Our flag is a symbol agreed. And it was created at a time when we were fighting in this country for our Independance. So I guess it has become a symbole of freedom from tyranny. So when these disatisfied citizens are burning it are they protesting what they see as an infringement on these freedoms? I don’t know the answer to that question, I can’t speak for them. But People will always do things in an extreme way for shock value. It’s just too bad that they would feel it ok to disrespect the very thing that represents the freedom they are trying to tout. Anyway, I wouldn’t do it myself. I think I could find a more effective way to protest besides being disrespectful. I don’t agree with the policies this administration is standing for either. But burning the flag isn’t the answer. And wasting time in government to amend something that isn’t important isn’t the answer either. And I don’t say that the flag isn’t important, and the more I write and the more I think about this the more I think that I am doing a lot of typing the same things that Fuzz and Em have already stated. I guess I agree with both. Isn’a that a little bit wisshy washy of me. That looks like I don’t really have an opinion after all. Well, I will stop now.

  16. Well, I do not feel that anyone should be burning the flag of ANY country especially the USA. It is a symbol of loyalty , freedom and our past. It makes me sad when I see people burning the flag with such disrespect to our country and what our past generations fought so hard for FREEDOM.
    With this said I do not feel changing the constitution is the answer. But I sure would love to be able to take the people who are burning the flag and put them in a country that does not have any freedoms the the USA has. Let them stay there for a while and see if they can find something else to burn.
    I just feel that there are better ways to express ourselves. Why burn a symbol that means so much to our people and to the soldiers who are fighting to keep peace, freedom and god knows what else. The people who burn the flag in my opion are worse than the politicians. They are looking for attention and using the flag to get it. I would have more respect and perhaps agree with them if they found a different way to express their opions and feelings. But if I see them burning a flag I will not listen to anything they have to say. Because they has disrespected me and my country.

    I am not sure changing the constitution will help this issue. from what i have read they are banning all burnings. Including the burning of the flag when it is being retired. I think at this point there are issues that the government should be working on that are more important than this issue. But with that said I do feel that maybe state government could have some sort of say regarding this issue. To tell you the truth I thought it was illegal to burn the flag> I thought something had already been passed to ban the abuse of the US flag.

  17. Huggs, Mavis, and while I can’t speak for Em, I can most assuredly say that I am NOT mad at her at all. I think it’s important to hear from different viewpoints, and I, too, agree with some things she’s said, Mavis. So that makes us both wishy washy, lol.

    And I did do a bit of research and it seems that the amendments have thusfar followed along the spirit of the two lines that Em’s stated. So far. The Constitution itself is very clear in its vagueness about the way the Constitution can be amended:

    The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
    (I got it from wikipedia, but it’s all over the net)

    So it seems that it’s incredibly open-ended, makes only one real stipulation about what cannot be changed prior to 1808 and that senatorial representation of the state cannot be changed. So while the point about the dual track of amendments is a valid observation about amendments already ratified, it does not mean that these are the only two “categories” that can be amended. Just because it’s always been so, does not mean that it should continue to be so. That argument is used too often to justify stands that have no other leg to stand on (women’s suffrage was often given the old “it’s always been this way” spin, as was slavery).

    Article Six is also open-ended (probably because the writers were anticipating changes but didn’t know exactly how things would pan out), but it is clear that any changes made to the Constitution (amendments) are to become the “law of the land.”

    And Bert, I think they burn the flag because it means so much, they want to make a powerful hurtful (and I think ignorant and ironic) statement, and they really don’t care who they hurt in the process (despite their usual claims of being “concerned citizens.”).

  18. No Mav – we aren’t fighting – and like a lot of other things – we all seem to agree that its bad to burn a flag – its just a matter of if/how a government goes about stopping it from happening.

    But you raise an interesting point – without body language and speech, its sometimes difficult to tell the “tone” of a discussion. I’m going to make more of an effort to try to be clear (and much briefer) when I respond to a message and hopefully that will help.


  19. Too true, Em. I don’t want to litter my comments with “huggs” and smileys, but in my mind, except of course for the research we’re both scurrying around doing on line, we’re hanging out with a bottle of wine and shooting the shit.

  20. Yaaaaaaaaaeeee. Two of my favorite people are not fighting. I really knew you weren’t but you sure can heat up a discussion. Fun to read.

  21. hehe, you should hear me and Amber get into it, Mavis; it’s enough to curl your toes! But I love Amber to absolute pieces, so it’s just opinions about issues, nothing more. Huggs!

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