June 14th is Flag Day in the United States. In 2006 I was very honored to be the first non-American to win the Eric Breindel Award. This column of mine was quoted in The New York Post's editorial on the award:
The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment on flag burning last week, in the course of which Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Republican of California) made the following argument:
Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center. Ask them and they will tell you: pass this amendment.
Unlike Congressman Cunningham, I wouldn't presume to speak for those who died atop the World Trade Center. For one thing, citizens of more than 50 foreign countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, were killed on 9/11. Of the remainder, maybe some would be in favor of a flag-burning amendment; and maybe some would think that criminalizing disrespect for national symbols is unworthy of a free society. And maybe others would roll their eyes and say that, granted it's been clear since about October 2001 that the Federal legislature has nothing useful to contribute to the war on terror and its hacks and poseurs prefer to busy themselves with a lot of irrelevant grandstanding with a side order of fries, they could at least quit dragging us into it.
And maybe a few would feel as many of my correspondents did last week about the ridiculous complaints of "desecration" of the Koran by US guards at Guantanamo – that, in the words of one reader, "it's not possible to 'torture' an inanimate object".
That alone is a perfectly good reason to object to a law forbidding the "desecration" of the flag. For my own part, I believe that, if someone wishes to burn a flag, he should be free to do so. In the same way, if Democrat Senators want to make speeches comparing the US military to Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, they should be free to do so. It's always useful to know what people really believe.
For example, two years ago, a young American lady, Rachel Corrie, was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. Her death immediately made her a martyr for the Palestinian cause, and her family and friends worked assiduously to promote the image of her as a youthful idealist passionately moved by despair and injustice. My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play about her, was a huge hit in London. Well, okay, it wasn't so much a play as a piece of sentimental agitprop so in thrall to its subject's golden innocence that the picture of Rachel on the cover of the Playbill shows her playing in the back yard, aged seven or so, wind in her hair, in a cute pink T-shirt.
There's another photograph of Rachel Corrie – at a Palestinian protest, headscarved, her face contorted with hate and rage, torching the Stars & Stripes. Which is the real Rachel Corrie? The "schoolgirl idealist" caught up in the cycle of violence? Or the grown woman burning the flag of her own country? Well, that's your call. But, because that second photograph exists, we at least have a choice.
Have you seen that Rachel Corrie flag-burning photo? If you follow Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs website and a few other Internet outposts, you will have. But you'll look for it in vain in the innumerable cooing profiles of the "passionate activist" that have appeared in the world's newspapers.
One of the big lessons of these last four years is that many, many beneficiaries of western civilization loathe that civilization - and the media are generally inclined to blur the extent of that loathing. At last year's Democratic Convention, when the Oscar-winning crockumentarian Michael Moore was given the seat of honor in the Presidential box next to Jimmy Carter, I wonder how many TV viewers knew that the terrorist "insurgents" – the guys who kidnap and murder aid workers, hack the heads off foreigners, load Down's syndrome youths up with explosives and send them off to detonate in shopping markets – are regarded by Moore as Iraq's Minutemen. I wonder how many viewers knew that on September 11th itself Moore's only gripe was that the terrorists had targeted New York and Washington instead of Texas or Mississippi: "They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him! Boston, New York, D.C. and the plane's destination of California -- these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!"
In other words, if the objection to flag desecration is that it's distasteful, tough. Like those apocryphal Victorian matrons who discreetly covered the curved legs of their pianos, the culture already goes to astonishing lengths to veil the excesses of those who are admirably straightforward in their hostility.
If people feel that way, why protect them with a law that will make it harder for the rest of us to see them as they are? One thing I've learned in the last four years is that it's very difficult to talk honestly about the issues that confront us. A brave and outspoken journalist, Oriana Fallaci, is currently being prosecuted for "vilification of religion", which is a crime in Italy; a Christian pastor has been ordered by an Australian court to apologize for his comments on Islam. In the European Union, "xenophobia" is against the law. A flag-burning amendment is the American equivalent of the rest of the west's ever more coercive constraints on free expression. The problem is not that some people burn flags; the problem is that the worldview of which flag-burning is a mere ritual is so entrenched at the highest levels of western culture.
Banning flag desecration flatters the desecrators and suggests that the flag of this great republic is a wee delicate bloom that has to be protected. It's not. It gets burned because it's strong. I'm a Canadian and one day, during the Kosovo war, I switched on the TV and there were some fellows jumping up and down in Belgrade burning the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. Big deal, seen it a million times. But then to my astonishment some of those excitable Serbs produced a Maple Leaf from somewhere and started torching that. Don't ask me why – we had a small contribution to the Kosovo bombing campaign but evidently it was enough to arouse the ire of Slobo's boys. I've never been so proud to be Canadian in years. I turned the sound up to see if they were yelling "Death to the Itsy-Bitsy Miniature Satan!", but you can't have everything.
That's the point: a flag has to be worth torching. When a flag gets burned, that's not a sign of its weakness but of its strength. If you can't stand the heat of your burning flag, get out of the superpower business. It's the left that believes the state can regulate everyone into thought-compliance. The right should understand that the battle of ideas is won out in the open.
~from The Chicago Sun-Times, June 26th 2005
Twelve years on, you won't be surprised to hear - after legal battles, and campaigns to repeal "hate speech" laws (some successful, some not), that I feel even more strongly about that last sentence. A society that shields the civilized from seeing the ugliness of its enemies does civilization no favors.
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