Old Glory: Up in Smoke

It’s a warm night in July. The seventy degree weather, complimented with a slight breeze that brushes the cheeks of your face, and ever-so-gently wisps around your hair, is made complete by the bright evening sky, lit up like a campfire with just the right amount of firewood. The beautiful blaze of fiery red-orange reflects perfectly off of the water, as it continues to ebb and flow. Off in the distance, the American Flag, which towers over all else, and seems to extend into the Heavens, waves in cadence with the heartbeat of the nation. The scene evokes emotion into even the most unfeeling of citizens, as a sense of unyielding patriotism reverberates about the country, in their minds, solidifying America’s place as the greatest in the world. Where else could one possibly find a sight euphoric as this?

The American flag, which many feel to be a sacred symbol, represents all things inherently good about life here: the Bill of Rights, the social and economic opportunities natural or naturalized citizens may have and even the idea that men, women and children are all born, equal in nature. Its stars and stripes aid us in putting life into perspective, reminding us of how far we have come, making the trek from thirteen rebellious English colonies, all the way to fifty states, now united.

To so many, Old Glory gives hope to what could be, what is and what was. That men and women have voluntarily signed away their lives in order to defend the red, white and blue is proof of how deeply America’s patriotic roots are planted. So it should be of some concern that when one rebels against the ideals of an entire group of people that care as much as Americans do, one is met with volatile behavior. As America’s flag reflects a nation which is free and tolerant, its most ardent supporters are, ironically, anything but. The practices of stomping on, burning or desecrating in any form the American Flag, while disrespectful, are not wrong, and must remain legal practices of protest if America is to continue using the moniker “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.”

Shortly after his election win, then-President-Elect Trump suggested jailing or possibly revoking citizenship of those choosing to burn the flag, which was met with uproarious support from his most dedicated followers, as well as those who just simply found the practice distasteful. As is always the case, those opposed to the suggestion had differing views on the subject. While one side believes burning the flag to be an act of terrorism, the other side sees it as a healthy demonstration of the First Amendment.

The debate over the legality or morality of practices pertaining to treatment of the flag has never been without governmental input. Often, the Judicial and Legislative branches have intervened. After a flag-burning demonstration took place in Central Park, New York City in 1968, Congress approved the nation’s first federal flag desecration law, which, according to ushistory.org, made it illegal to “knowingly’ cast ‘contempt’ upon ‘any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon it.'” A year later though, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of not arresting a Civil Rights protester who lit his own flag on fire. It wasn’t until 1989’s  Texas v. Johnson, however, that the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of burning the flag. The nine justices voted 5-4 in favor of Gregory Johnson, who had been arrested for burning a flag outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention.

1989 continued to be a big year for controversy surrounding the flag, as Congress would go on to amend the 1968 Federal Flag Desecration bill, and sought to make all forms of disrespect towards the flag illegal. A year later in 1990, the Supreme Court saw United States v. Eichman, and found that Congress’ flag laws restricted symbolic speech, giving a win to those who see burning the flag as an act of protest. The decision caused members Congress to consider a law which would amend the Constitution to say that both Congress and states would have the abilities to prohibit desecrating the flag. The notion was later rejected, as it did not have the votes necessary to proceed.

Perhaps the largest problem with this country’s freedom of speech is the very thin line between what is right and what is wrong. If a flag is truly a representation of all things historic and meaningful, flying the Confederate Flag, for example, is not free speech; it’s hateful speech. Showing pride in a symbol representing the part of the nation so deeply divided, so immersed in its own ability to discriminate against people of color that it separated itself from the northern half of the country is not an action that makes one patriotic, but a racist. The same can be said for those who adore the American flag. Why burning a flag — which is truly just a piece of cloth — is something worth revoking citizenship over, but replicating the flag into novelty items: cups, plates, tablecloths, napkins, bathing suits, pens, pencils and ball caps is nothing worth becoming angry over is the perfect example of the hypocrisy which surrounds the entirety of this argument. If one feels that one’s flag is indeed so sacred that it must not be in any way disrespected, shouldn’t one too be angry at the man spilling barbecue sauce onto his American flag t-shirt?

This country can be described using a plethora adjectives, but, sadly, tolerant is not one of them. While I understand and appreciate the history of this country, I feel that, at the end of the day, the flag is but a manufactured, replicated piece of cloth. Its meaning and everything enticing about America is held not within the flag itself, but in the spirits of those who love the country enough to make it a more inclusive place for those with views both similar and different to their own.

As the courts have consistently sided with those in agreement on the practices of flag-burning, it should be (but isn’t) abundantly clear to any opposition that the freedom of speech entails the right to voice differing opinions on a subject without punishment from governing bodies. That being said, if one cannot show disgust in one’s government with symbolic gestures, if the battle is lost to those that fail to understand both sides of freedom, and if one has not the right to speak or think freely, what left is there to take pride in?

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