Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Flag of our Fathers

I direct your attention to this editorial from Christopher Hitchens that appeared in Monday's Wall Street Journal. Emphasis mine.


The Flag Fetish
Better to burn a banner than to deface the Constitution.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

The night before my interview for American citizenship, I suddenly decided that it was too long since I had read the Constitution. Taking it down from the shelf (I am not one of those who makes a fetish of carrying it around on my person), I found myself staying up much later than the vestigial civics exam would have required of me. To turn these pages is to revisit the record of American history. It's also a bit like viewing a cross-section of mammalian evolution, as a clumsy creature gradually acquires the needful adaptations.

The original three-fifths rule was never really designed for flight, but some wings and feathers (and talons) are then added by those amendments that abolish slavery. There are backslidings--the attempt to impose Prohibition--and there are the fossilized records of political vendetta, such as the limitation of presidencies to two terms. I have some personal favorite details, such as the provision that forbids office-holders from accepting any titles or decorations from foreign potentates. And I've never quite understood why increases in congressional pay should require an amendment of their own. But to speak generally, it can be said that the Constitution is written with admirable force and clarity, with remarkably few weasel-words and with a great respect for citizens who desire a document that is both intelligible, flexible and authoritative. With fascination and emotion, as if reading by candlelight, one watches the fledgling gradually become an eagle. The King James Bible to one side, the Constitution is probably the greatest document ever composed by a committee.

It is of course designed to be amended and made more spacious, and many brave people fought and died to make this point. But it should never be burdened with anything trivial or transient, such as the zeal of certain Calvinists to ban alcohol, or the horror of certain other people at the idea of homosexual weddings. And this, it seems to me, is part of the reason why the so-called flag-burning amendment should never be allowed to waste any more congressional time.

I would perhaps be suspected of excess Fourth of July zeal if I said that the First Amendment is my life as well as the source of my living, but I swear that it would not be that far from the truth. No other country has such a terse and comprehensive statement of the case for free expression: considered important enough to rank first, and also to rank with the freedom of religious conscience. The jewel in the crown of the Bill of Rights does not say that Congress shall make no hasty or crowd-pleasing law abridging the right of assembly and protest. It stoutly insists that Congress shall make no such law.

Thus, it does not matter at all which opinion, or which "sensitivity," is being outraged. The uttermost limit of contempt for America, or American foreign policy, is evidently the vandalizing (and, mindful of the careful neutrality of the Constitution regarding religion, let us not say "desecration") of the stars and stripes. Shall we then say that expression is protected only until it reaches its symbolic limit? What could be more absurd? It is precisely because the flag is so important to some people that we must permit its trashing by others. To legislate otherwise would be to instate a taboo, and that is exactly what the First Amendment exists to forestall.

Of course there are various more pragmatic ways of ridiculing the flag-fetishists. This ponderous "cure" is in response to exactly what "disease"? Like a good number of today's "left," the supporters of the amendment are still living in the '60s. (And even in that incendiary time, the great American socialist Norman Thomas proposed that the flag be publicly washed, not publicly ignited.) Foreign crowds may still torch the flag with impunity, but domestic ones now prefer to represent the president of the United States in full Nazi regalia. I daresay Mr. Bush can stand it; in any event the Constitution says that he has to. As to the myriad other forms in which flags are misused, from album covers to headbands and tattoos, we may as well face the fact that, as the patron of globalization, our country has had to see its emblem become to some extent a logo. No law could even attempt to contain this without becoming richly farcical. And the future possibilities of satire are themselves protected from any prior restraint.

When it was proposed that my apartment building in Washington display Old Glory after Sept. 11, 2001, I was not at all opposed but did express a misgiving. What about the day when the flag becomes tattered and drooping, and it's nobody's particular job to take care of it? (You can all think of a comparable example, from a ragged flag on a truck to a half-vanished flag decal on a taxi.) There is nothing more dispiriting than the ebb of such a tide. If I find that I have stuck a flag-stamp on an envelope and accidentally put it on upside-down, I admit with slight embarrassment that I now start over with a new envelope. Nobody would ever notice my tiny disrespect, but I still won't commit it. However, the whole case would be altered if I was told that I had to get it right. The flag would no longer stand for the constitutional spirit that gives it meaning in the first place. It may once have waved over hellish plantations but it was also defended to the end by the Maine regiment at Little Round Top. Without ambiguities and ironies, it would not be what it is. And ambiguity and irony are just what the flag-fetishists do not understand.

If they did have any concept of historical and political irony, they would surely be repelled by at least some of the senators who affected to take their side. You may believe if you choose that Hillary Clinton has abruptly decided to stand between her country's star-spangled banner and its unsleeping enemies. I cannot quite shake the feeling that she is instead putting the flag between herself and her potential critics. Is it this kind of degraded election-year parody that the sponsors of the proposal seriously wanted to encourage? In Iraq, our most desperate field of battle, our troops do not display the flag on patrol because they are in someone else's country. No thinking soldier needs to have this explained to him, or her. But in Washington, the alleged "defense" of the flag depends, for its swing-votes, on people whose very stock-in-trade is cowardice. That ought never to have happened, and is an insult to those who serve, and ought not be permitted to happen again.

It's easy enough to boast that "these colors do not run." However, those who mistake the symbol for the essence are manifesting not a show of spirit for the former but a pathetic lack of confidence in the latter.

Mr. Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America" (HarperCollins, 2006).

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