Yesterday, a proposed ammendment to ban the burning of the US flag as a form of expression failed in the Senate by one vote, after having been passed by the House. I find the fact that such an ammendment has widespread support to be truly frightening -- it runs completely counter to our foundation. I would be hard-pressed to find something more powerfully opposed to the First Ammendment than this.
It horrifies me that we would put a symbol in a higher state than the country and idea "for which it stands." If this ammendment were to pass, burning the flag would be worse than saying "democracy sucks." Of course, we could then expect these "patriots" to assualt any form of speech with which they disagreed.
I was particulary unhappy to discover that one of my state senators, Diane Feinstein not only voted for the ammendment, but was actually one of the sponsors. Below the fold is the letter that I wrote to her this morning.
I am writing to you today, to express my extreme disappointment in your position on the "flag burning" ammendment. While I have agreed with you on many topics, we must part company on this one -- far enought that I can assure you that you have lost any future vote from me.
Where your statement in support did not entirely ignore our nation's foundation in free expression, it was baldly dismissive. Making a distinction between "conduct" and "speech" is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.
Is our nation so weak, so threatened that we must take draconian measures when someone expresses themselves in an extreme form? Is your love for the United States any less when someone burns a flag in protest? Why is the opprobrium of the vast majority of Americans not enough response to a flag burner?
During the Cold War and now during the "War on Terror," we have often said of our enemy: "Look, he is not like us. He is totalitarian while we have great freedoms. He hates us for our freedoms." Why then is our response to throw away our freedoms and become more like our enemy?
I am the son and grandson of Navy veterans -- men who served our country well in two world wars. I have the flag that draped my grandfather's coffin at his funeral. This is a very important object for me. It represents not only the country I love, but the sacrifices that my grandfather made. It is not, however, my country or my grandfather. If it were to be damaged or destroyed, I would be sad -- done deliberately and I would be angry. But neither my country nor my grandfather would be one whit diminished by such an act.
Perhaps this is a different definition of what a patriot is, that is at the heart of this. I suspect that when you see a flag-burner, you see someone betraying their country. I see someone who is exercising their rights in a way that puts them at tremendous risk -- to me, a patriotic act, although one that angers me at the same time. To paraphrase "I hate what you have to say, and how you say it, but I will defend your right to do so."
I read that you are opposed to an ammendment that would restrict same-sex marriages -- for that, I applaud you. One of the arguments made in favor of such an ammendment is that same-sex marriages somehow "threaten" the institution of marriage. As if allowing these would in some way invalidate every heterosexual marriage in the country, or that heterosexuals would somehow become less faithful and loving as a result. This, of course, is ridiculous. I view flag-burning in the same vein. Burning a flag, however repugnant to me, doesn't diminish my country or me at all, just as a same-sex marriage doesn't diminish the institution of marriage.
In conclusion, I must restate my intense disappointment in your position. It does not represent me, or many of the people that I know.
Something else that I should have included in my letter to the senator: Her distinction between "conduct" and "speech" is ridiculous. By her criteria, publishing "Common Sense" was an admirable act of speech, but the Boston Tea Party would be reprehesible because it is "conduct" not "speech." I don't think, though, that I'm going to hear the senator decry the perpetrators of that particular action.
Her position statement contains some other doozies, like this paragraph:
Amending the Constitution for this narrow and necessary purpose is an implicit recognition of the depth and breadth of the First Amendment. What could more clearly signal the scope and strength of our freedom of speech than the fact that even protecting our nation’s symbol from desecration requires a Constitutional Amendment?
Newspeak anyone? "We must destroy that village in order to save it."