Pyro Patriotism

From the way Republicans in Congress are offering up Constitutional
amendments these days, you’d think they were tax breaks. Now they’ve voted
out of committee an amendment that makes it possible to ban “the physical
desecration” of the American flag. As of June 28, the amendment passed the
full House. Not just passed, either: it sailed through, 312 to 120.
Forty-nine state legislatures have pledged allegiance to it. That means if
only 12 Democrats in the Senate join all 55 Republicans, we’ll have a
red-white-and-blue 28th Amendment before long.

The arguments against this patent free-speech infringement are painfully
familiar. The ACLU and People for the American Way have tirelessly (some
would say tediously) defended our right to torch the flag. Even the Supreme
Court has been consistently defending flag-burning. Remember the 1989 case
of Texas v. Johnson? William Brennan, last of the red-hot liberals,
forcefully wrote: “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its
desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished
emblem represents.”

Today the question is: how did liberals get put in this political box —
forced to defend both the First Amendment and their patriotism, reduced to
uttering splendidly strained locutions like President Clinton’s assertion
that he wants “to stop flag-burning before it starts.” It all stems from
the Democrats’ surrender of the language of patriotism. This began
somewhere around Nixon’s Silent Majority speech and crystallized by
Reagan’s Morning in America campaign. Democrats became unable to convince
most voters that they loved America as much as the Republicans. When
right-wing camouflage-wearing, government-hating,
federal-building-exploding organizations are routinely called “patriotic
groups,” you know the left has lost this issue.

For years, liberal reformers — Bill Clinton among them — have championed
a reclamation of the language. The call has gone out to pepper speeches
with the vocabulary of devotion to country. Stop qualifying your
statements of pride, the reformers say; enough with the equivocations. So
why hasn’t this happened?

There is an answer. At this late date in the history of the American
experiment, gestures of patriotism have accumulated a lot of unseemly
baggage. It’s hard to invoke them without acknowledging the mischievous
purposes to which they’ve been put. (Think George Bush’s 1988 campaign.)
After all, the impulse behind the desecration amendment isn’t really to
protect a symbol; it’s to promote conformity, to make a pariah–and a
criminal–of the dissenter. That’s an impulse inimical to liberal values
(and appropriately so). When the Senate and state legislatures vote on the
flag-desecration amendment, liberals should remember what Dr. Johnson said
and refuse to number themselves among the scoundrels.

— D.G. (June, 1995)

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