Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Flag burning? Again? Come on, really?

Yes, it might "Thune" be a reality (sorry, couldn't resist). A constitutional amendment, that is, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota (the guy who ungraciously unseated former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- for how he did so, see here) is the leading sponsor in the Senate. The Carpetbagger Report has the story. It looks like the amendment, now in its seventh go-around, will pass the House (where the right goes largely unchecked), but now there's some concern that it might even get through the Senate, usually a much more stable, deliberative body. The reason? New Republican senators like Thune, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and David Vitter of Louisiana. All of them "voted for the amendment as House members and plan to do so again".

Need I even comment?

During Bush II's presidency, there have thus far been two major constitutional amendment proposals. The first was the marriage amendment that would have legally restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. The second is this one. The first is an amendment that would, for the first time, constitutionalize discrimination against a specific group of American citizens (gays and lesbians). The second is an amendment that would, for the first time, undercut the First Amendment by restricting individual liberty.

Both are dangerous. Both are un-American. And both are insane.

But the second, at least, is now on its way through Congress. I suspect that the amendment wouldn't get past the states, even it survives the Senate, but I wonder if this isn't yet another example of Republican over-reach. If so, it could backfire against the Republicans in 2006 by persuading some moderates to move over to (or back to) the Democrats and by mobilizing the Democrats' more liberal base. But I'm not sure I want to take that risk.

This story isn't getting much attention at the moment, but it's incredibly bad news for anyone who cares about the Constitution and the protection of liberty that it enshrines as one of the foundations of American life. What is the rest of the world to think when it sees America reverse the spread of liberty right at home by tampering with the First Amendment?

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  • I don't think it would backfire because I suspect most people don't see this as a free speech issue. (I do.) I think there are a lot of people that think we owe respect to the flag--that doesn't mean they think people should'nt be able to criticize or that they want to censor speech. But I think they see the flag as a symbol above politics and, therefore, not subject to criticism. I disagree with this strongly, but I really think this has a good chance of passing. The objections to a flag burning amendment, let's face it, are abstract--there are other ways to register protest other than burning the flag--so I just don't think there will be a storm of protest. And what politician, even if he or she is liberal, is going to want to fight an amendment against flag burning.

    What the Republicans have done is elected a cohort of politicians that have no sense of history or political philosophy. They are businessmen or professionals that reflect the "common sense" perspective of their constitutents. So, the more abstract notions of free speech and due process don't mean much to them (although I'm sure they would agree with the idea of free speech in general or that accused should get a fair trial).

    In a sense, the Republicans have developed a much more "populist" approach to social issues. It's an emotional and visceral appeal to poltics. There is little in the way of intellectualizing with respect to things like the flag--instead, the GOP members hit on emotional, hot button themes. I don't think this is simply "political." As I said, think this reflects the fact that the source of Republicans and Democrats is very different. Republicans are businessmen, professionals, etc., while Democrats are more academic and intellectual. This, of course, is a very broad generalization and I don't want to make too much of it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:50 AM  

  • Nothing to do but to quote The Simpsons, the last voice of political sanity on the American landscape...

    I'm an amendment-to-be, yes an amendment-to-be,
    And I'm hoping that they'll ratify me.

    There's a lot of flag-burners,
    Who have got too much freedom,
    I want to make it legal
    For policemen to beat'em.

    'Cause there's limits to our liberties,
    At least I hope and pray that there are,
    'Cause those liberal freaks go too far.

    Kid: But why can't we just make a law against flag-burning?
    Amendment: Because that law would be unconstitutional.
    But if we changed the Constitution...
    Kid: Then we could make all sorts of crazy laws!
    Amendment: Now you're catching on!
    Kid: What if people say you're not good enough to be in the


    Amendment: Then I'll crush all opposition to me,
    And I'll make Ted Kennedy pay.
    If he fights back, I'll say that he's gay.

    By Blogger Vivek Krishnamurthy, at 3:30 PM  

  • Nate,

    The issue with cross-burning is that it was connected to an act, ie, it was (and is) intended to intimidate blacks and others opposed to their view. Which you acknowledge. But you can hardly argue that a few flag burners (wherever they are) are intimidating the public.

    I recognize that the flag is a symbol of America and I respect the symbol. I would certainly want to throttle someone that burned the flag. And I recognize the pain that flag burning might cause a veteran. But, let's face it, the veterans didn't fight to protect a piece of cloth but to defend the ideals of the United States of America. One of those ideals is free speech, regardless of how unpopular. Moreover, the fact speech might offend someone is hardly reason to ban the speech. A lot of people are probably offended by criticism of President Bush. (And, by the way, I would make the same argument to leftists that want to create speech codes on campus.)But the fact is, there are limits on the extent to which government can or should foster patriotism. What does patriotism mean if it has to be enforced by government fiat?

    As far as the flag being a critical part of the assimilationist process, I really have to question that. It seems to me that voting, participating in the political process, and free speech (in addition to cultural integration) is what really speeds assimilation more than the flag.

    Finally, what is the great need for this amendment? Has a rash of flag burning broken out somewhere of which I am not aware? Most of the flag burning I see is overseas and I don't think thsoe people are subject to American law. I remember incidents of flag burning during the sixties, of course, and a famous incident at Dodger Stadium where Rick Monday rescued a burning flag. I think the flag survived as a symbol. Other than that, who is burning flags? Wouldn't you assume that if you were going to pass a constitutional amendment, there should be an actual reason for it?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:42 PM  

  • Nate,

    One more thing. You said you hope the left doesn't pick this up as a cause. The left's not doing anything. It's the right that's picking this up as a cause. I don't see many people on the left advocating flag burning. It the right wingers that are stirring up an unnecessary controversy, largely, I'm sure, to tar the Democrats with being unpatriotic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:45 PM  

  • This is an excellent discussion. Thanks, guys. You're really adding a lot to The Reaction.

    I'm obviously on the anti-amendment side here, but it's important to remember that anti-amendment doesn't necessarily mean pro-flag burning. That's likely how Republicans will try to frame the upcoming debate, but, to me, it's actually more American, more in line with America's principles, to put up with flag burning (not there's much going on, from what I can tell) as an expression of free speech in a free country.

    Nate, I'm certainly sensitive to your concerns here. But what's clear is that America already holds its flag in a place of honor. I get down to Buffalo every now and then (for shopping, mainly), and last year I drove across New York, Massachusetts, and Maine on my way to the Maritimes, and, of course, I used to live down there. There's no doubt that Americans love their flag. You see it everywhere. That means much more to me than a constitutional amendment.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 11:44 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:51 PM  

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