Blogs > Liberty and Power > Mr. Key, please phone your office

Jun 28, 2006 10:19 am

Mr. Key, please phone your office

Perhaps I should be jaded enough not to be bothered by this anymore, but the perennial recurrence of the “debate” over a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration drives me bonkers. 1, it’s so transparently more about partisan hackery than it is about any substantive issue (“my opponent even voted for flag-burning!”) 2, it suggests that there’s no such thing as private property. If it’s my flag, it’s up to me whether to desecrate it. This seems to me exactly analogous to the classic thought-experiment about some art collector having the right to deface his newest acquisition, the Mona Lisa. While compelling moral arguments might be made to the effect that he ought not to do so, legally it is pretty obviously his prerogative. He’d have the legal right to keep it in his living room and never display it again, right? From my point of view, what’s the difference? Whether it’s locked up in his house or ripped to shreds, I don’t get to see it anymore. The whole point of property is that you get to determine its use. So if the government wants to ban the desecration of government-owned flags, great. But if it’s a mass-produced object that I can buy at Target, then the one I’ve bought is mine, and you don’t get to tell me what to do with it, at least not in a country where there’s such a thing as private property. They haven’t repealed that yet. And 3, it’s so stupidly contradictory – Arlen Specter, e.g., says it’s not just speech, but an action designed to antagonize. So, when you burn the flag, you’re pretty much flipping the bird to the USA and offending its supporters. Well, yes. Congratulations, Mr. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, you’ve just discovered the point of the First Amendment. It’s precisely because it’s an offensive and inflammatory political statement that it’s an example of what the First Amendment is meant to protect. Senator Hatch said that the flag is a symbol and hence (huh?) needed protection. Um, I don’t think that’s your best move. The Nazi flag was a symbol of the Third Reich and therefore of the principles of national socialism. I can see burning a Nazi flag at a rally protesting national socialism, can’t you? What principles does our flag represent? Freedom? Yeah, that’s what I thought. You can’t save the Bill of Rights by poking lots of holes in it.

UPDATE: Amazingly, the anti-First Amendment crowd fell one vote short. Good news for a change, accompanied by more overblown rhetoric. Bill Frist noted, lamenting the bill's failure, that many soldiers had died for the flag. I hope not! I prefer to think they died for what the flag represents, not the flag itself.

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Aeon J. Skoble - 6/27/2006

Well, yes, in principle - as any logician will tell you, anything and everything follows from a contradiction -- but this is so maddeningly stupid that it seemed worth going on record as saying so. Thing is, you don't even have to be libertarian to think this is moronic.

Stephan Kinsella - 6/27/2006

If the feds can tax and conscript you, jail you for smoking some doobage--well, a fortiori, no?

Robert Higgs - 6/27/2006

Neither in the UK nor, to my knowledge, in any other country has the national flag taken on the ideological weight that it has in the United States. This development is scarcely surprising, being but one of a thousand ways in which the American people have become the most mindlessly nationalistic herd on the planet.

The very concept of desecrating the flag, which Sudha aptly places in quotes, suggests that the Americans clearly stand in violation of the First Commandment--and in violent violation, too, given that the flag serves above all as the combat banner of the imperial armed forces. The typical American long ago surrendered his soul to the nation-state: hence his idiotic attachment to that state's emblem-rag. He must plaster it everywhere--on products, on packages and envelopes, on signs, on commercial accouterment--he must fly it over his used car lots and not uncommonly over the front yard of his residence, and of course very often he must prop it up prominently even in his house of worship.

The 1960s are much demonized in certain circles (though my personal circle is not one of them), but whatever vices that era might have had, I find flag burning to be among its proudest monuments.

Sudha Shenoy - 6/27/2006

For what it's worth, in Britain the Union flag is printed on underwear of all sorts. The boxer shorts are advertised as 'patriotic'. The Union flag is also printed on tea-towels (I have one.) A Tory MP introduced a private member's Bill to penalise 'desecration' of the flag, but explicitly excluded underwear, tea towels,'& such sort of fun'.

Here in Australia, the odd person who puts up a flag on his verandah, or even more peculiar, on a flagpole outside his house, _is_ seen as odd.

To some extent, culture does come into it.