Thanks to Jonathan Karl, who substituted for George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week”, flag burning is back in the news. On the April 30th episode, Karl asked POTUS surrogate and chief-of-staff Reince Priebus if the president was sticking to his November 29, 2016 tweet suggesting that those who burn the U.S. flag should lose their citizenship or spend a year in jail. Priebus was quick to reply that there had been no change in that opinion and went on to share that 70% of Americans agree, though he did not cite his source for that statistic.
The legal right to burn a United States flag is settled law (United States v Eichman), so regardless of public opinion, those seeking to light-up a banner can currently do so without fear of prosecution. But when they do, some observer is going to go berserk and demand incarceration and/or a hefty fine for the perpetrator, something commensurate with the “horrible, un-American act”.
It’s time for all Americans to grow-up.
It is almost inconceivable that there are rational adults in this country who cannot recognize that a flag is just a symbol. However, there are currently five generations of Americans who have either been exposed to or forced to recite (depending on locale), a pledge of allegiance as part of a national effort to instill patriotism in all its young citizens. And since 1931 our national song has been—wait for it—“The Star Spangled Banner” which we (try to) sing at many public gatherings. One of the (intended ?) by-products of these patriotic exercises, however, has been the erosion of rational thought.
The recitation and the associated choreography of the pledge and song have resulted in an unquestioning loyalty and often some “Stepford Wives” behavior Even the wording within the pledge suggests that the flag is more than a symbol. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…and to the republic, for which it stands…” The pledge should be to the republic, not to the symbol of the republic, but the repetitive drilling of the vocabulary above along with other patriotic theater practiced for over seventy years has often resulted in both a belief that the flag dispenses our freedoms and a fierce loyalty to that belief. The United States is not the only government to successfully induce a strong, emotional connection to a flag, but it is one of the few countries that has codified the right to desecrate the symbol that represents, among other things, the right to say “I hate this country” (Which countries is it illegal to burn the country’s flag?).
When a U.S. citizen sets a flag ablaze to protest continuing American imperialism or a failed justice system, it might be because they are not articulate enough to verbalize their concerns and believe that the torching of Old Glory will adequately communicate their dissatisfaction with a broken government. Maybe some even believe that it will facilitate dialogue which will ultimately yield a remedy for their concerns, but that is doubtful. It’s more likely that they are counting on the visceral and completely predictable reaction from their opponents, and commit the act with the smugness that comes from knowing their opponents can do nothing to stop them. Many observers have described such behavior as juvenile and I’ve come to agree because it is similar to a child throwing a tantrum, which is just a cry for attention.
But we do not criminalize tantrums or cries for attention (unless someone else’s person or property are threatened), and the subsequent cries coming from some of the opponents to “lock them up” are just as juvenile. We do not live in prehistoric times, the middle ages or even Eisenhower’s cold war era. We exist in the most enlightened and informed times in human history. As adults we should analyze information and actions for meaning and possible resolution instead of simply resorting to the auto-pilot reactions we were taught as children.
Protesters either have a message they desperately want to convey or are just seeking attention. Mature observers should either attempt to identify the issues so that they can examine them for merit and resolution or at least recognize the act as a tantrum and understand that the destruction of a piece of cloth (possibly manufactured abroad), does not depreciate one’s life. We should also be wary of politicians who feign personal indignation when a flag is ignited. They are not acting out of concern for the republic, but are exploiting our lazy, auto-pilot mentality in an attempt to wrap themselves in patriotism.
A great amount of energy has been expended on this subject, while issues that really impact our country and citizenry have been ignored. As indicated in a previous post, democracy is not perfect, is not always pretty and does not always produce the expected results. In a country—or even in a room—with more than one person, conflicting opinions will occur resulting in different actions, but we must be careful not confuse actions that threaten our safety, property or liberty with those that just threaten our sensibilities. Living life on auto-pilot may be easier, but it doesn’t utilize our intellectual capacity and it doesn’t help us play nice with others. If we can’t prevent public tantrums, we can at least try to be the adults in the room.