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June 04, 2003

Here We Go Again

"WASHINGTON (AP) - In what Democrats called an annual GOP rite of spring, the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday passed an amendment to the Constitution to criminalize flag burning for the fifth time in eight years.

The one-line change to the Constitution - ``The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States'' - was approved by a 300-125 vote as a pair of holidays approach - Flag Day on June 14 and Independence Day in July." -- "House Approves Ban on Burning U.S. Flag," Associated Press, 6/4/2003

If this shows anything it's the fact that a large swath of our legislators are perfectly happy to chuck out the first amendment if they think they can get a vote out of it. And each time they do, it's worth re-reading a newspaper column I wrote on the matter EIGHT YEARS AGO which rather unfortunately is still as relevant today as it was then. Rather than make you hunt through the archives to find it, I'll reprint it here. Enjoy.

"I Can't Believe It's Not The American Flag!": How to Defeat the Flag-Desecration Amendment.

The hideous, bloated mass of cane toads that we endearingly call the 104th House of Representatives has gone and done it again: they've voted to amend the Constitution of the United States in places it needs no amending. This time it's a "flag-burning" amendment, a proposal that reads in its entirety "The Congress and the States shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

In one swipe, this proposed amendment guts the entire purpose of the First Amendment (to provide for free expression of ideas, no matter how unpopular), and alters the symbolic content of the American flag from a proud ensign of freedom and liberty to a suspect banner whose supposed protection flies against everything it had previously represented. In short, the flag will change from something well worth cherishing to something well worth burning. This is in character for the House, which is apparently incapable of reading the Constitution of the United States without moving its collective lips.

My first impulse, of course, was to go out and do a little flag toasting myself. But I figure every other excitable boy and girl in this great land of ours is thinking the same thing. Besides, if the Senate loses its bladder control, and the States do likewise, it's entirely possible I'd go to the slammer. And while being a political prisoner in the previously politically free United States has an appeal, jail itself is a bummer. I'd be inside, where large, tattooed fellows with bad teeth would be calling me "girlfriend", while the idiots who passed the amendment would be roaming around freely, thinking up of new ways to chop the Constitution into a fine pate. Which is the exact opposite of the way it should be.

No, the best way to fight this amendment is to undermine it from the word Go, to prove (without having to be incarcerated) how stupid and pointless this thing would be. So right here and now I promise: the day the 38th state legislature passes this amendment into law, I go into business for myself. Making what? Flags, of course.

What kind of flags? Well, I'll tell you. The flag I have in mind has 13 stripes, alternating red and white. In the top left hand corner, I figure I'd put a blue rectangle, and fill it with white, five-pointed stars, in alternating rows of five and six, numbering, oh, about 50 or so. But where that last star would go, maybe I'd put a circle instead, or a square, or a pentagon, seeing that's it's five sided and all. It'd be 99% the Flag of United States of America, and 1% filler.

It would look like that American flag, it would feel like an American flag, and if I ran it up a flagpole, someone would probably salute it like an American flag. And why not? It's close enough in form and content to evoke all the responses that the American flag would. I'd bet you that even from a close distance, most folks would swear that's what it is. But it's not. What to call it? Something catchy, like "Not The Flag of the United States," "United States Flag Substitute," or, my personal favorite, "I Can't Believe It's Not the American Flag!"

What could I do with my new flag? Why, just about anything I wanted:

Bob: Say, John, what are you doing over there?

Me: Well, Bob, I'm thinking of roasting this here entire pig on the hibachi! But first I must stoke the cooking fire!

Bob: Say, John, isn't that the Constitutionally-protected American flag that you are laying over those red hot charcoal briquettes?

Me: It sure looks that way, doesn't it? But see that tiny white dot over there?

Bob (squinting): Why yes I do! It's so small!

Me: Thanks to that trivial detail, this is Not The Flag of the United States! And I can burn it at will!

Bob: Hey, that's great! Could I use your United States Flag Substitute? I've got a heap of leaves in the back yard I need to take care of!

Me: Sure, Bob! It makes great kindling!

I could wear it, wax my car, swaddle small, incontinent children, potty-train my turtle, towel off after mud wrestling, turn it into a hammock, use it as bandages in a emergency situation or just shred it into fibers with a weed-whacker. Whatever I wanted. God forbid I would want to burn something in political protest, I could set it aflame outside the steps of the United States House of Representatives.

I'd be in the clear, burning my exactly-like-an-American-flag-except-for-one-small-detail flag, while all the anti-flag burning types would seethe, because they know and feel in their guts that I'm burning the American flag and getting off on a mere technicality. All their work would be for nothing, which is precisely and exactly my point.

If you want people to revere and honor the flag, you should let it stand for principles that are worth honoring and revering. Compulsory reverence is no reverence at all. Just remember, I'm standing by with my new flags. I bet you I'd sell a lot of them.

Posted by john at June 4, 2003 09:46 AM

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Comments

damon | June 4, 2003 10:15 AM

You'd better be careful, here. Jim might take exception to your genre hopping and have a hissy-fit.

Good article; having personal freedom predetermined for you was the reason America was formed in the first place. If you don't like it when some yahoo burns Old Glory, excercise your freedom and, repercussions notwithstanding, go punch him in the kisser.

John Scalzi | June 4, 2003 10:32 AM

Now, now. No random Jim bashing. This is an entirely separate thread.

Alex Elliott | June 4, 2003 11:14 AM

It's interesting to note that one of the first laws enacted by the Chinese government when it took over Hong Kong in 1997 was a law prohibiting the burning of the Chinese or Hong Kong flags.

I really don't think that the Communist Chinese dictatorship is a good model to follow when drafting Constitutional amendments.

jason | June 4, 2003 11:21 AM

Hey, where can I get one of those "I can't believe it's not the American flag" flags?

Everytime this stupid idea comes up, it just makes my blood boil. Is burning a flag distasteful? Yes, I think most citizens would agree that it is. Is burning a flag more likely to piss people off than sway them to your cause? Refer to question #1. Should we make it illegal? Absolutely not, no way, uh-uh, negatory.

Ghafla | June 4, 2003 12:17 PM

Man, I'd buy an "I Can't Believe It's Not the American Flag!" right now if someone made them. Does Cafepress do flags?

Jim | June 4, 2003 01:09 PM

[Uh, can we be a bit more precise about which "Jim" we're referring to here. Thank you.]

I can't believe these anal apertures keep bringing up this idiot cause every year. And that the inbred morons in their home districts keep returning them to Washington every two years. (Of course, that does keep them safely away from the home town.)

John, your reprint was right on target! Let us hope that in future years there will be no need to run it again.

Tripp | June 4, 2003 01:27 PM

In a similar vein, I've often wished that instead of pledging allegiance to the flag, we could pledge allegiance to the constitution.

I think the military does this, and the constitution would be a nice addition to classrooms.

Roger | June 4, 2003 01:30 PM

> a large swath of our legislators are perfectly
> happy to chuck out the first amendment if they
> think they can get a vote out of it.

The USA is (theoretically) a democracy, after
all -- the only reason legislators should be
doing anything is if they can get a vote out of
it. If they don't have a mandate from the
plurality to do so, then I can see a legitimate
complaint. But complaining that politicians
in a democracy are pandering to the mob is just
a circular argument.

Bill | June 4, 2003 01:55 PM

The USA is a democratic republic. The idea is to elect representatives who will do what is in the best interest of their constituents; this may or may not coincide with what the constituents ask for. Every X years, the constituents get to vote on the overall performance and decide if s/he gets to keep representing them.

If the reps were simply supposed to parrot the majority's preference on each individual issue, we wouldn't need them; we'd just use direct democracy. Part of the point of the representative system is to act as a check against raw majority rule.

_Jon | June 4, 2003 02:09 PM


Ummm, irony here, but does anyone know what you are supposed to do with an American Flag after it has been removed from service?
(Consider if it is showing signs of wear and needs to be replaced.)

John Scalzi | June 4, 2003 02:32 PM

You're supposed to burn it. But if you burn it in the prescribed way, it's not desecration. The proposed Amendment does not ban burning the flag, merely desecrating it.

So clearly, the way to have your cake and eat it too is to publicly destroy an old flag in the prescribed way while at the same speaking very loudly in protest against whatever government action one is protesting.

Bill Peschel | June 4, 2003 03:20 PM

Meanwhile, a Chicago politician campaigning for re-election distributes trash bags with the American flag printed on it (this happened a few years ago).

It really is a pity that there's not someone with enough public authority to say that an ideal that needs a law to protect it is not an ideal worth protecting.

And while we're on the subject of what politicians do, don't forget all those polls that find a significant number of Americans are willing to gut the Bill of Rights as well, if given the choice. In that respect, they're not that different from the politicians.

But what really gets my goat are that, in these times, I doubt you'd lose many votes by voting against this numskull amendment. Has any politican been smeared with a "he favors burning the flag!" ad campaign?

SP | June 4, 2003 04:10 PM

Technically, couldn't they consider the act of making "I can't believe it's not the American flag" to be desecrating the flag? I guess it depends on the process (taking real flags and adding or removing a few threads, vs. making it with 49 stars 1 pentagon in the first place), but it might be open to interpretation.

John Scalzi | June 4, 2003 04:27 PM

That's why you'd manufacture the flags yourself, of course.

ian | June 4, 2003 05:17 PM

good plan. put me down for one of those ^_^

Christine | June 4, 2003 06:05 PM

I celebrate Flag Day every year by burning flags. Normally we burn several of them - some large, and some small. With Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts even. Sure, it's to "retire" the flags in the proper manner (you're supposed to burn them, not toss them in the trash) but it still gives me a small sense of glee to burn the flags. As if I'm going to spite the GOP idiots that keep passing this amendment.

It should not be up to the government whether or not I burn a flag. That defeats the whole purpose of the Constitution.

baconhere | June 4, 2003 09:18 PM

Hey, John, if this amendment just happens to pass, please consider me as a possible business partner. I'm going to be doing traveling between Texas and Pennsylvania, so I'm sure I could sell a lot of those I Can't Believe It's Not the American Flag! flags if you sent me a batch. And I'm sure my fellow Texans would be absolutely thrilled.

Scott | June 4, 2003 10:54 PM

There's only one little danger here - you'd be standing there burning your "American Processed Flag Substitute", it'd burn, and then they'd nail you for desecrating the flag. "But," you say, "it wasn't REALLY an American flag - just an amazing imitation!"

Their response? "Oh, yeah? Prove it." At which point you'd be stuck, because the proof just burned. Off you go to meet your new boyfriend...

So, I'd make the little swatch that contained the clever difference inflammable. "Why, see this little swastika here where a star ought to be? That's all that remains of your so called 'American Symbol'. Clearly this COULDN'T have been an American flag, now, could it?"

John Scalzi | June 4, 2003 11:17 PM

Or just videotape yourself doing it, making sure to note the "Not Quite US Flag-ishness" of it.

Abigail | June 5, 2003 08:10 AM

Well, I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand the American justice system the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, and the evidence of the burning of any sort of flag would be, by definition, destroyed. Of course, the flag probably wouldn't be completely consumed, but it would still be up to the prosecution to prove that the item in question was in fact a bona-fide American flag and not one of John' knock-offs. It's an interesting question, actually. Is this a prosecutable crime? Even if John's I-can't-believe-it's-not-an-American-flag remains a pipe dream, would a prosecutor ever be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a protester had burned an American flag (without video or eye-witness testimony, of course)?

I'm also wondering about a question that I first heard voiced on The West Wing. Is flag-burning such a common act? How often do protestors choose to express themselves by burning an American flag (inside the US, that is)?

Tripp | June 5, 2003 11:55 AM

Abigail,
I'm pretty sure protesters express themselves by burning Dixie Chicks CDs, not flags.

DPWally | June 5, 2003 01:36 PM

I like your not-quite-a-flag idea, but I'd go the opposite direction - undestroyable nuisance flags.

Let's say a classic building is about to be torn down to make room for a Wal-Mart expansion and the local historic preservation society has run out of legal options. Paint a flag on the side of the building so it can't be torn down.

Perhaps you disapprove of a local professional sport. Carve a flag into the astroturf. All games will be postponed while the city builds a new stadium.

Too much traffic on your block? Get some red, white, and blue whipped cream and be traffic-free until the next rain.

I look forward to this amendment. It adds a thrilling new meaning to wrapping yourself in the flag.

DPWally | June 5, 2003 01:51 PM

While I'm at it, here's a description of the Doonesbury comic strip from Sunday November 5, 1989. It features a large drawing of a flag rippling in the breeze.

Marvelous Mark's Konundrum Korner

Kids! Here's a real brain-teaser! Try disposing of today's comix section without violating George Bush's proposed constitutional amendment on flag desecration! Sure, this flag's only paper, but it's still our nation's symbol!

Remember:

*No using it to line a bird cage or train a puppy - that's desecration!

*No throwing it in the garbage - ditto!

*No using it to start a fire in the fireplace - that's flag burning!

Good Luck!

Solution on far right.

[In the bottom-right corner of the strip, upside-down]

Solution? There is none! You're stuck with this flag until it crumbles! Sorry, kids, but that's the way it goes sometimes in Konundrum Korner!

Anonymous | June 5, 2003 05:00 PM

I think TP with little flags on each sheet should be the only option. Of course to make money at this you would have to sell them to the government at 75 dollars per roll and incorporate into the contract that they are used exclusivly in the bathrooms in the congress building and the white house.

Constipate em enough and maybe they will change their mind. You could also hire some spys to watch the bathrooms to see if some of them sneak a wipe. If they do, well then off to meet their new boyfriend.

Brian

Tripp | June 6, 2003 03:02 PM

If flags can't be burned, why don't they make houses out of them?

It would sure save on insurance.

KevinNYC | June 9, 2003 05:24 PM

Why do I think that when the Democrats are debating the proposed Ammendment and pointing out its ironies and basic anti-American thrust, the Republicans will find a way to make the tax code, more regressive or purge black voters off the rolls.

Brian | June 17, 2003 01:50 PM

(Sorry about the long delay post-to-comment, I'm catching up in the archives.)

Hafta be careful with all the knock-off ideas, though... using definitions (almost) verbatim from Merriam-Webster Online (http://www.m-w.com):

Desecrate (1): to violate the sanctity of
Sanctity (2): the quality or state of being holy or sacred - INVIOLABILITY
Inviolability (1): secure from violation or profanation
Sacred (5b): highly valued and important

Yeah, it's a nice looong stretch, but if they decided to, they could come up with some law or another about it. ;-) Gotta love this wonderful language of ours.