Thursday, June 23, 2005

Just thinking: If supporters succeed in getting a flag-desecration amendment into the Constitution, will it be illegal to burn a flag but legal to burn a cross?

(Apparently so -- in 2003 the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia ban on cross-burning, but AP reported that a ruling in the case would "affect laws in about a dozen states." So a ban on flag-burning would be nationwide, but in some states cross-burning would still be legal. Apples and oranges, maybe, but, hey, if we're gonna ban stuff...)

I happen to think flag-burning is, and ought to remain, protected speech. (I also think that, as a tool of protest, it's invariably counterproductive.) However, I believe cross-burning is more than speech -- it's intimidation, no more subject to First Amendment protections than an answering-machine death threat, though I know a lot of people think it's simply expressive content and deserves protection.

The flag amendment has been approved by the House, but AP says it's likely to fall about two votes short in the Senate. What do you suppose would happen if two senators said, "We'll vote for this if you add a ban on cross-burning"? Given the lack of unanimity on the recent lynching resolution, do you suppose some of the fine folks in the Senate would reject the deal?


The amendment reads, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." So it's not just burning we're talking about.

What's weird about this is that when I was a little kid, a lot of people were furious at Abbie Hoffman for wearing an American flag shirt. I actually saw a TV talk show on which he wore the shirt -- it was Dick Cavett's show, I think -- and the shirt was so controversial that after the taping a decision was made never to show Hoffman wearing it. There was no digital blurring back then, so the screen just went gray (I was watching in black-and-white) every time there was a close-up of Hoffman. When Hoffman was shown talking to the host, half the screen went gray. It was like a scene from a bad novel of dystopia.

Then, a generation later, we got Lee Greenwood, the country singer best known for "God Bless the USA," and his flag shirt.

Same shirt, basically. But one was seen as "desecration," the other as patriotism -- all based on what the wearers were assumed to be thinking about America. (Never mind the fact that Abbie used to insist that he loved America.)

I can't wait to see how much mind-reading of that kind we have to do if this amendment passes and people find clever new things to do with flags.

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