Lance Morrow: Why the flag is not a burning issue
I remember riding on George Herbert Walker Bush's campaign bus through the countryside of downstate Illinois in the early fall of 1988. The candidate was in his pork rinds mode: An exuberant populist condescension used to overwhelm Bush's WASPiness around election time and dispatch him on missions of good-natured political slumming. He sang along to country music. In every public square, he hammered away at big, cheap themes: 1) Willie Horton, the Black Monster on Furlough; 2) Read My Lips, No New Taxes; and 3) Uncouth Radicals Want to Burn Your Flag.
Bush, a fine man in all sorts of ways, ran a disgusting campaign that year -- Issue One was racist, Issue Three was bogus, and Bush's mantra on Issue Two was notoriously insincere. (He of course betrayed that promise by raising taxes once elected.) But working the big bogus vein has a way of paying off in American politics. If 1988 was a gridiron, the Democrat, poor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, was playing high school football. Bush was doing it the way they do it in the NFL -- rough stuff and the killer instinct.
One generation passeth away, and a new generation arriveth to make the same mistakes, as if they had never been made before. I guess I had gone to sleep on the subject of flag burning. I was astonished to wake up, these 12 years later, to find that the Senate has been seriously considering an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit flag burning. I thought we had evolved beyond that one.
Then, and now, and for the foreseeable future, a flag-burning amendment is a terrible idea. Why does it keep coming back?
For one thing, flag burning (even though it occurs rarely) originated as one of the vivid, button-pushing ur-outrages committed during the great '60s deconstruction of American authority (which some boomers consider to be the beginning of the world) and engraved on the national memory by photographs of the time -- merging with black-and-white shots of an Abbie Hoffman type giving the finger to "Amerika," or of the student radical Mark Rudd smirking and smoking a cigar with his feet up on the desk of the president of Columbia University. Burning the flag has a force of primal, even Oedipal, transgression.
It outrages veterans. It outrages lots of Americans. It is intended to. It is not difficult to sympathize with the anger. Vietnam outraged people, too -- just as World War I outraged the poet e.e. cummings, who wrote, in "The Song of Olaf": "There is some s--- I will not eat/I will not kiss your f------ flag."
The people pushing the flag-burning ban need to go back to school, and to think harder. The Constitution -- onto which patriots or opportunists are eager to nail wanton amendments from time to time -- was not designed for the purpose of making people feel good by silencing opinions that make some people feel bad. The First Amendment functions as an indispensable shock absorber. It protects all speech, not merely popular or majority speech. If you want to enjoy the freedom of America, you can damned well put up with the disgusting freedom of your fellow citizens. Other people's freedom is sometimes offensive.
The idea of a flag-burning amendment is advanced mostly by conservatives who seem not to understand that its logic partakes of the worst of coercive and morally negligent thinking from the other side of the ideological aisle. How does the rationale for prohibiting flag-burning differ from the politically correct fascism on university campuses that, for example, denies a hearing to Ward Connerly, the Californian behind the legal drive against affirmative action?
Such suppressions, from either side, are more dangerous to America than burning a flag could ever be.
Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.