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Is the US flag merely a ‘designated’ emblem or does it symbolize the honor of a precious social and political concept?

(A version of this column was first published in the July 1, 1989 edition of this newspaper)

The United States Supreme Court decision concerning the case of Gregory Johnson, arrested for burning the U.S. flag during a protest demonstration at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, came just as that nation entered its most patriotic season, celebrating its independence from England. Perhaps that’s what stirred up so much opposition to the Court’s ruling, which stated that flag burning is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as a form of political protest.

[That ruling invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American flag enforced in 48 of the 50 states.]

Five years later, Washington D.C. was filled with a flurry of proposals to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning, with speeches galore against the Court’s ruling and full of patriotic indignation.

A number of liberal-minded people take a two-pronged position that 1) a nation’s flag is just another “designated” national emblem and 2) anything that prohibits any expression of any idea is in violation of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, burning the flag in recent times has long becom the customary method of the enemies of the United States to express their hatred of that nation and its people. Thus, today, in the minds of a considerable number of U.S. citizens, someone who burns the U.S. flag is an enemy of that nation and its people. This quite possibly is not so, but events of the past 40 or so years have demonstrated that it very often is.

Or at least it seems to be in the minds of the majority of U.S. citizens. U.S. legislators were swamped by communications from their constituents protesting the Supreme Court’s ruling. Thus, there was a surge among Senators and Representatives to be “out in front” on this patriotic issue.

It’s difficult to find many citizens of other countries in this community — Canadians, Mexicans, citizens of England and France — who express approval of burning their nation’s flags. Mexico is particularly protective of its national symbols. Such an act does not seem to be a popular method of self-expression among the majority of people with whom I have spoken to concerning the question. And while most U.S. citizens agree that one of the basic concepts of U.S. democracy is the protection of the right to be wrong, the right to hold minority, controversial, or even culturally repugnant convictions, most of them disapprove of burning the U.S. flag.

I was reared in a community where the flag was revered, where one was taught never to let it touch the ground and no one, certainly not a community leader, would ever wear it. Well, that was another time, another place. And yet, in 1989 it was the era for which much of the United States seemed to be expressing fulsome, even overwrought nostalgia.

Much of the United States was also expressing a longing for “old-fashioned values,” which may explain why the Supreme Court ruling concerning the flag generated so much opposition. Many people north of the border said the fundamental values of their society were being diminished. Drug use, crime, teenage pregnancies and school dropouts were clear indications of this condition, said social critics. Certainly, employers had long noticed a problem with education, which seemed to range from poor to awful, failing to prepare either high school or college graduates for managing their personal lives or competently handling tasks in the work place.

Some observers argued that such values as respect for the nation’s flag are an appropriate place to begin social rehabilitation. These days, the nostalgia in 1989 for the 1950s seems feckless as well as baffling if it meant nothing more than wearing clothing two sizes too large and getting one’s hair cut short. And perhaps the indignation concerning the burning of the nation’s flag reflected an uneasiness with superficial wistfulness.

Both then and today, a great many U.S. citizens of both conservative and liberal persuasion believe the flag symbolizes the honor of a unique nation, of a precious social and political concept, and an exceptional community consciousness. Therefore, the flag itself has special value.

Many such people argued that anything may be done with the flag except to show unambiguous contempt for it, because such acts demonstrate contempt for all members of the community. This argument postulates that citizens are free to verbally denounce the flag, publicly burn other symbols of government or effigies of the nation’s political or other leaders, march in protest and demonstrate for or against any idea.

But in 1989, forty-eight states had laws prohibiting the burning and desecration of the flat — only Alaska and Wyoming did not. This presumably meant that a majority of U.S. citizens did not want their flag burned. A reasonable state of affairs, it seems to me.

Perhaps the condition of being an expatriate generates heretofore unrecognized, exceptional patriotic sympathies. For on reading that Gregory Johnson had burned the U.S. flag at the Republican National Convention, my first reaction was that it expressed a disheartening lack of imagination. It seemed to me that a great deal could have been said by Johnson, possibly about the growing deficit, government corruption or Ronald Reagan’s cuts in public assistance programs. But he said none of it by burning the flag. It was inarticulate, unpersuasive, ineffective and it seemed to me inappropriate — because it was pathetically beside the point, the product of a dull and empty mind, a stunted imaginative process.

Perhaps Johnson was merely the product of a poorly educated and increasingly valueless society. Or perhaps I’d been away from the United States too long and my July 4 spirits had been running away with me. Certainly, no newspaper editor is excited about advocating any blunting of the expression of ideas, of free speech, especially an editor who operates an expatriate publication. Perhaps it was merely my writing sensibilities — my aesthetic sensibilities, if you will — that were ruffled by such empty-mindedness. Whatever the case may be, Gregory Johnson’s action and its aftermath seemed to have failed to enlist the majority of U.S. citizens into the ranks of those who believe that flag burning should be protected by the First Amendment.

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