Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Holy Orders
The House passed the flag-desecration amendment again this afternoon, for the sixth time. It's headed for the Senate next, probably before the Fourth of July, where it's frequently been ignored and has never passed before. This time, however, it almost certainly will pass. Then it goes off to the state legislatures for ratification, which is quite nearly a foregone conclusion, given that more than the required two-thirds of the state legislatures have asked Congress to pass such an amendment. So we'd better resign ourselves to the most trivial Constitutional amendment since Prohibition becoming law sometime next spring.

Interesting word choice, "desecration." From Dictionary.com: "Desecrate: to violate the sacredness of; profane." And also: "to violate the sacred character of a place or language; 'desecrate a cemetary'; 'violate the sanctity of the church'; 'profane the name of God'." It's clear that in order for something to be desecrated, we have to consider it sacred. Now, you can argue that the American flag is a symbol of our civil religion--but that presumes a subtlety of thought not generally found amongst our solons, particularly in the House of Representatives. Nope--what we're seeing here is more post-9/11 conflation of America's purpose with God's will, elevating the national symbol to the status of a religious icon, and equating the defacing of it with blasphemy, a religious offense.

Ratification of the amendment is not the end, it's the beginning. It opens a hellacious can of worms--because after ratification, Congress will have to decide just how to regulate flag "desecration." Burning the flag is an easy thing to prohibit. But what if it's not burned? What if it's sliced to ribbons, stained with something, dragged on the ground? Does the bumper sticker I saw the other day, which showed the stars in the flag replaced by the block letters "GOP," constitute defacement? If I sew a flag patch on the seat of my pants, do I desecrate the flag by sitting down? If any of the amendment's supporters had bothered with two minutes of hard thinking, they might have seen just how dicey the whole proposition really is. But that won't stop them from blundering into gray areas as if they knew what they were doing.

Here's what I think will happen. I am guessing that Congress will institute federal penalties for flag desecration, because leaving it to the states to enforce leaves too much room for lax virtue. (States' rights bad, federal control good. John C. Calhoun spins in his grave.) After all, some of the blue states would most likely take a laissez-faire approach to it. So they'll most likely put the feds in the business of punishing people for what is more a thoughtcrime than anything else. After all, the total number of flag "desecration" reported in the United States in 2004 was one. There's no epidemic of flag-burning incidents--and there never has been. (The scattered incidents during the Vietnam protest era didn't constitute an epidemic.) So in the end, this amendment only incidentally protects the physical object that is the American flag. It's a broader symbol of the culture war, a law the Republicans are passing because they can, and because it keeps the culture war alive.

On this subject, Tom Herbst observed one day recently in the comments:
It’s ridiculous that a nation purporting to cherish the freedom of expression should choose to restrict that freedom in so pointedly ironic a fashion.

The symbol is not the nation, and I will not be told what to worship.

A cloth symbol touted as more important the rights it used to represent? Now that’s an American Idol.
Tom will be taking the blogging wheel here tomorrow. (And keeping at least one hand on it at all times. What he could be doing with the other hand, I'd rather not think about.) I'll be back sometime next week.

(If you haven't responded to my question about the movies you find yourself watching again and again, scroll down to "You Don't Like This Car?" and click "Comments.")

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