is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.

As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.

That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.

A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.

What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.


From Alyssa

Hey, I’m Alyssa. I’m a veteran of a whole bunch of different blogs; Josh is right that I can’t hold on to one of my own, at least not with school and work, and a life, so I’m thrilled that he’s invited me back. I’m a junior at Yale, and a Humanities major, which means I enjoy geeking out over things like obscure Inquisitorial tribunals and Florentine artistic and political movements. When I reemerge into the real world, I like indie rock, social justice movements of a bunch of different stripes, big American cities and their problems, and writing.

To get started…The New Yorker is bad about keeping their articles online (although with the New York Times taking much of the good stuff electronic, who am I to complain), but Hendrik Hertzberg, who writes the always excellent lead political piece in the beginning of the Talk of Town section, delivers a trenchant analysis of the latest British election in the May 23 issue. He takes on the perception among American liberals that the British system is a lot more democratic (participation, though much higher, slipped in this election). I’m not voicing agreement or disagreement-I simply don’t know enough to do that. But Hertzberg is always worth taking a look at; I think he gets too little attention among bloggers for how good he is. Making sure that people like him, and the New York Times commentators, get excerpted on the net despite not being widely available online (especially in archived form) is going to be important. I think the sentiment that so much is happening on the internet that anything not available online is replacable is sadly mistaken, if only because it sacrifices much of the challenging and interesting style out there.