By lex, on August 26th, 2009
I was half-listening to NPR on the way in to work this morning, and of course the main topic of discussion was the late senator from Massachusetts. The senator fought many fights in his time, and one of them was against a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.
Now, as inspiring as I find our national ensign, the history, land and people it represents, and as personally repugnant as I find its desecration, I happen to agree that the Constitution is too precious a document to be trifled with on merely symbolic grounds. And I accept without endorsing the notion that such displays are a form of constitutionally protected speech.
It’s easy to make too much of this, but it did set me to thinking: What with all the tea parties and town hall meetings over the course of the last year we’ve had the opportunity to see a thing rarely observed in our lifetime – normal people, people of all races, classes and creeds, even people of conservative ideological bent protesting. Because conservatives don’t protest, they don’t gather in the street. They’ve got jobs to get to, families to raise and taxes to pay. They’re too busy for all of that tomfoolery, which is far better left to undergraduate naïfs with too much time on their hands egged on by a professorial class that looks back upon the 60s as the last time they were truly alive, man. The French may take to the streets at the drop of a croissant, but here in the US it’s left to the fringes – overwhelmingly the passionate left – to bang on bongo drums and gad about on stilts.
This new phenomenon of middle American protest has been an unwelcome shock both to the fourth estate and the entrenched political class, who have together tried to disparage the protesters with gross allusions, questioned their motivations and even patriotism, and have now even gone so far as to seed legitimate protests against unwelcome intrusions of government into the private sphere with agents provocateurs.
But there’s one thing you won’t see done at any tea parties or town hall protests: You won’t see flag burning.
We don’t burn flags.
The very idea is so grotesquely out of synch with conservative, libertarian and middle American thinking that to even attempt such a thing as an agitprop in tea party-like environment would result in 1) immediate denunciation, and 2) quite possibly an ass beating. You can get away with that sort of thing in San Francisco, safely enveloped in the welcoming arms of the Code Pink set or at a Worker’s World Party shin-dig, but you’d be nuts to try it in DeKalb, Georgia or Des Moines, Iowa.
This is not to say that all, most or even many liberals endorse flag burning except in a theoretical “freedom of speech” sense or that the act in itself is anything more than mere juvenile provocation. But it does imply a telling difference: Reasonable people are dismayed but no longer surprised to see an American flag burned by elements among the perpetually agitated hyper-left. The very notion would be a nonsensical at a tea party protest.
I’m open to alternative explanations but I believe this has something to do with the foundational difference between the way the left and right view the ontology of government, especially at the federal level. The Democratic Party is the “government party” in the same way that Republicans pretends to be members of the “anti-government” party – or, since the realization of anti-government is in fact anarchy, the “small” or “limited” government party. Liberals tend to believe that if the proper set of people are at the helm, society will progress while conservatives tend to be deeply suspicious of government-driven solutions to what they believe is fundamentally an aggregation of personal – even private – issues.
This tendency to conflate the American government with America is why flag burning is episodic: Troops are still boots on deck in Iraq and Afghanistan, but flags are no longer being burned in Berkeley. This is why “dissent is patriotic” when the wrong people have access to the levers of federal power, but “un-American” when the correct people are in charge.
Most citizens on the right seem to universally understand that the nation is unique and distinctly separate from elected governments, governments that in any case come and go. They recognize the need for government without feeling as though they are in a committed personal relationship with it. They believe in a transcendental idea of America that persists even when those whose ideologies they disagree with gain a monopoly of political power.
It scarcely needs mentioning, but most citizens on the left are in fact patriots who simply share a different vision of what America might someday become. But there is a noisy – and noisome – fringe for whom love of country is conditional. And conditional love is no love at all. It depends upon the receipt of some quid pro quo, some change in behavior. At its core it is narcissistic, controlling, even abusive.
(Question: What about Timothy McVeigh? He didn’t just burn a flag, he blew up a building and killed 168 people.
Answer: McVeigh was a homicidal kook, a loser, who furthermore crafted his terrorist acts in secret, whose actions were not a form of constitutionally protected speech.)
So my question is not whether one side or the other has cornered the market on kooks – they haven’t – it’s why one side seems to have carved out a monopoly on periodic national self-loathing.