The failure of Senate legislation over “flag desecration” came as a relief and a surprise. When the vote went down Tuesday, I fully expected to experience the ultimate humiliation of living in a country that celebrates its freedoms by taking away the right to burn its flag as a protest or statement of policy — or, for that matter, for fun.
The penultimate humiliation, of course, would be that such legislation passing meant there were huge numbers of people, represented by a majority of U.S. representatives and senators, that failed to grasp the difference between protecting pieces of cloth (probably manufactured in Malaysia) and metaphorically burning the U.S. Constitution, which the pieces of cloth are intended to represent. Anyone who dies in war “for our flag” isn’t really paying attention.
And the legislation failed by only vote. Hardly encouraging, and embarrassing enough on its own, but I’ll take what victories or relief I can get.
Living in the United States is wholly embarrassing anyway, solely because our leaders are such hypocrites. Every time they get up to make a speech they unleash pieties scandalous, if not bitterly hilarious, when contrasted with their behavior. A classic came when President Bush traveled to Turkey in June 2004 to lecture about how “Suppressing dissent only increases radicalism,” a lesson so applicable in his own country and in Iraq — where his military licensed and shut down newspapers, infamously leading to savage rioting (and possibly sparking the entire insurgency) — that one wonders how Bush managed to get the words out.
More recently, in May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unleashed a howler on the graduating class of Boston College:
“It can be tempting ... to opt for the false comfort of a life without questions,” she told the graduates. “Unfortunately, that’s easier to do than ever. It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think. That is a temptation that educated people have a responsibility to reject. There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you are right, go find somebody who disagrees. Don’t allow yourself the easy course of the constant ‘amen’ to everything that you say.”
She may have meant this as an unthinking piety, as a rebuke to students she feels are knee-jerk liberals or even as a sotto voce dig at her boss, the president, who notoriously surrounds himself with incompetent toadies and rewards them when their inbred policies inevitably fail. It doesn’t matter how Rice meant it. Her position as a toady to Bush, albeit as the most competent one, removes all moral authority she has to say such things and be taken seriously, just as you don’t want to be lectured on good diet by a McDonald’s executive or discuss the benefits of multiculturalism with a member of the Klan.
Spewing and embracing such hypocrisies seems reasonable, though, in a land where you kill a freedom because you love it and burning a flag can’t possibly be “speech” protected by the First Amendment because it’s, well, so offensive — even if this is the essence of the First Amendment; there are few cases on record of constitutional crises brought on by people asserting that bunnies are cute and love is all around us.
Or, for that matter, that black is white, up is down, left is right, that Bush thinks suppressing dissent increases radicalism or that a Bush aide thinks listening to differing points of view is groovy.
It does, however, seem bothersome in a land where — keep in mind, this is the same land — the Supreme Court affirms that contributing money to a political campaign is constitutionally protected “speech,” a position applauded by many who back an amendment that would criminalize flag burning, and the president says he got permission to tap U.S. citizens’ phones when Congress authorized “force” against Iraq. This is an assertion that becomes all the more astonishing after a reading of the resolution, and even after a reading of relevant portions of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. These documents make clear that the “speech” in which Bush is engaging in regard to his authorization to tap phones is what the average person would call a “lie.” Any member of Congress who swallows this theory shouldn’t be allowed to vote in favor of a flag desecration amendment; you must accept flag burning as “speech” if you accept wiretapping as “force.”
It is embarrassing to live in a country whose most prominent attributes seem to be the capacity to lie and be taken in by those lies. This kind of humiliation can quickly turn to anger, of course. I’m frankly angry enough, and concerned enough, to want to make a strong statement against all of it.
Perhaps burning a flag?