Response to Arguments on the Flag-Burning Amendment

From Overreaction Alert by Suburban Sundries Shack:

Far be it from me to spit in the face, blah blah blah, but whether you believe this is a good idea or not, you'd be hard-pressed to make a convincing argument that putting something to the people of America for debate and a vote is a disgrace.

The concept of a democracy is very simple. If you have something you want made into law - even Constitutional Law - you subject it to the rigors of the democratic process. You let people debate the issue and decide for themselves whether or not it ought to be. Squelching the attempt to do so is antithetical to democracy and freedom. It's that simple.

Let's not be so simple-minded as to think that freedom and democracy always go hand in hand. Democracy has allowed laws promoting slavery, segregation, eugenics, and a whole host of other gross violation of individual freedoms because the voting majority was in support of them. If Democracy is such holy and unequivocally good institution, why do we have courts that can strike down majority-approved legislation? Right is right, wrong is wrong, and freedom is freedom no matter what a democratic majority supports. Is preventing people from telling me that I can't burn a flag on risk of imprisonment antithetical to democracy? Sure it is - so was Brown vs. the Board of Education. But to say it is antithetical to freedom is silly. It's that simple.

Ask yourself this: What is more important, popular opinion or freedom and justice? If you blindly support popular opinion no matter what, you might want to take another look at the flag you're talking about - the country it represents does not have a history of supporting your view.

The issue is hardly as black and white as HAC would have us believe. Flags are objects, it is true. But flags are not merely objects, equal to an old t-shirt or a ripped pair of jeans. A flag is also a symbol and that makes the argument much more complex. Symbols embody ideas, often important ones. For evidence of that, remember the debate and eventual legislative action over flying the Confederate battle flag from several state buildings in the south. A national flag is an even more special case. It is a symbol chosen by a nation to represent itself. It is an icon and that merits different consideration as well. If a flag was nothing but an object, you would be hard-pressed to see such popular support for a flag-burning amendment as polls have shown throughout the late 1980s and well into the 1990s. As late as 1999, a USA Today poll shows 63% of the American people in favor of such an Amendment. Obviously, the American flag is far more than an object.

Flags are not merely objects? I must have missed something here... are they somehow magical? Sure, we choose to consider them as symbols that represent something, whatever that may be. People fly them or burn them with the intention of making a statement. But no one seems to be arguing that it should be illegal to make statements that flag-burners might want to make in writing or in speeches. This isn't yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, lying under oath, threatening bodily harm to anyone, etc. If the statement itself is permissible, and the action by which it is conveyed is not causing any harm, how could it possibly make any sense to outlaw that particular way of conveying the statement?

The example of the Confederate flag in southern states is completely different than flag burning. That issue isn't about individuals expressing their own beliefs on their own time - that is about the government making (or possibly seeming to make) a racist statement. I won't get into the debate about whether or not it was actually doing so - but the problem there has nothing to do with the particular method by which that statement may have been made, the problem was solely with a statement that the government should not be making.

And again, no, flags are not more than objects no matter how much you point out that people also choose to recognize them as symbols with meaning. And in any case, even if they were somehow actually 'embodied' with this meaning, that's certainly no reason to outlaw burning them - since when do we have the right to tell people that they must respect a certain set of beliefs? I don't get to demand that no one burn a book that I love, even if it is generally recognized as representing/embodying/being symbolic of whatever beliefs, qualities, or whatever else. The only thing special about symbols is our view of them as symbols - there's nothing special about the object itself. If it is permissible to speak out against, ridicule, and bash the view, how could it possibly make sense to outlaw the burning of an object that people view as symbolic of that view?

Really? Perhaps she ought to consider another point. A flag-burning amendment wouldn't prevent one single person from expressing their feelings and belief. Not one. It will only prevent them from expressing their opinions about American in one particular manner. An infinite number of other methods are open to them. Restricting one method is hardly a critical impingement on anyone's freedom. I'll quote Justice Stevens' dissent in the 1989 Texas vs Johnson Supreme Court case, "Had he [Johnson] chosen to spray-paint -- or perhaps convey with a motion picture projector -- his message of dissatisfaction on the facade of the Lincoln Memorial, there would be no question about the power of the Government to prohibit his means of expression". Nor is it the only case in which we have seen fit to restrict the methods a person may use to convey their views. We have a plethora of laws that routinely restrict speech for various reasons. Preventing the public desecration of our flag would only be one of them. Perhaps HAC would rathre we remove all laws that prevent us from saying anything we want, wherever we want, in any manner we want, but I rather doubt it.

Yes, that's right - people would still have other methods for expressing their views. So heck, how about we just make it illegal for people to express any anti-American sentiments in any way except by writing their views on toilet paper with crayons? The "they can still express themselves in other ways" argument is weak and ridiculous. Since when do people only have the right to express themselves in government-approved fashion? Restrictions on free speech generally (and should) begin only when that speech is causing harm. Real harm, not just making you feel bad because you don't like what you're hearing. Remember the "Fire!" in the crowded theatre example, that sort of thing?

When you start talking about things like spray-painting a memorial, anyone can see (once again) they you are bringing up something that is completely different. It isn't illegal to express yourself by spray-painting public property because you aren't allowed to express yourselves in certain ways - it's because you don't own that property. Completely different reason there. No one is arguing that a person can do anything they like as long as they are doing it to make a statement. But we are talking about personal, private property here. People who buy their very own flag to burn it. That piece of cloth doesn't belong to anyone else, no matter what others decide to view it as representing.

We aren't talking about restricting people's methods of expressing their views because the method itself is a problem. The call to ban flag-burning is clearly motivated by a problem with the message expressed by flag-burners. It wouldn't matter if you spray-painted "I love America!" across the Lincoln Memorial - it would still be illegal because there is something wrong with the method itself. If there is nothing wrong with burning a flag-shaped piece of cloth that you own, the only complaint that there could be against burning the American flag could be one about the message itself.

Ah, there's that word "merely" again. Burning the American flag is a trifling matter, an inconsequential thing to her, no different than burning any other brightly-colored scrap of cloth. Except that it isn't and no amount of bloviation will change that.

Ah, the straw-man arguments. Don't you just love those? No one could seriously think that I would see burning an American flag as being no different than burning "any other brightly-colored scrap of cloth". If, for example, someone burned the Mexican flag, that would probably mean they had something against Mexico (or the Mexican government, or culture, or...), while burning the Spanish flag would probably have something to do with Spain. And burning a Bible might mean a person had something against Christianity, while burning the Koran might mean they had something against Islam.

What's the point? The only reason a person would see burning the American flag as being something especially offensive would be that they very strongly disagree with whatever views are being (or they see as being) expressed by that burning. Hey, that's great - fly your flag proudly to express your views then. But the fact that you disagree with someone and because you see their expression of their views as much more than a trifling manner does not mean you have a right to throw them in prison. Not everyone thinks like you do - understand that, accept it, grow up and get over it. I wouldn't see the burning of a Bible as an inconsequential matter either (or the burning of Kant, for that matter) - but that doesn't permit me to imprison people who do it. And just like not everyone shares everyone else's religious beliefs, not every one shares your political/cultural beliefs either. Nor does every one share your views of what it means to burn the flag. So who are you to say "This is what it means, and I don't like what it means, so you aren't allowed to do it"?

This last section was, of course, a poor attempt at a personal attack to discredit my views anyway. You know, one of those "Hey everybody, she doesn't think it's any big deal to burn the flag, ignore her arguments even if they make sense!" statements. Intelligent people don't take that kind of thing seriously. And in any case, it was outrightly false and unsupported.

Of course burning the American flag is different than burning something else. It makes a different statement. It makes a statement that most people see as very significant because of how strongly they disagree with it. And if you really believe in America, you believe in tolerating that in return for your freedom to express your views. That's only fair, isn't it?

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