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Flag-Burning Is A Terrible Idea. But So Is Banning The Practice


Nobody provokes journalists quite like president-elect Donald J. Trump does. Every casual tweet, every utterance, every decision sends them into paroxysms. The only thing less surprising than Trump’s continued use of Twitter to speak directly to people is that the media freak out about how his behavior renders their role as gatekeepers and speech policers less effective than ever.

So you can imagine what happened when Trump tweeted this morning:

The response from the media and other liberals was the usual: apoplectic rage. Some observers noted that bans on flag burning are popular or that Sen. Hillary Clinton herself had sponsored and introduced a bill in 2005 that called for a year in the hoosegow for flag burners. The response from the Trump-loving right was not much better — from favorable to pushing the idea he was brilliantly trolling his critics into an unpopular activity he had no intention of truly punishing.

The context of Trump’s tweets is most likely a brewing political storm at Hampshire College regarding the U.S. flag. Students lowered the flag to half-staff after the election. (Imma let you finish, Hampshire kids, but my across-the-street neighbor flew his flag distress for a couple weeks. He totally beat you in the drama queen department.) Members of the college town didn’t like it. Then someone burned a flag. This angered the community even more. The college responded by deciding to not raise any flags over campus. College president Jonathan Lash said the half-staff flying was “an expression of grief over the violent deaths being suffered in this country and globally.”

Lash later said, and I’m not making this up, “We’ve heard from members of our community that, for them and for many in our country, the flag is a powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up as people of color, never feeling safe. For others, it’s a symbol of their highest aspirations for the country.”

Army veteran and state representative John Velis called on Hampshire to reinstate the U.S. flag on its campus immediately, saying the college president made no sense and his statement was “baseless, cowardly, a disgrace.” He reminded Lash how U.S. veterans secure the peace that enables discussions about flags to take place. A rally was held a couple days ago featuring thousands of U.S. flags carried by members of the community, both veterans and otherwise.

Let’s Discuss Patriotism Real Quick

A few years ago, Leon Kass was given the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award. He won the award during a time when recipients gave an important speech. Now, sadly, award recipients sit and answer a few questions. In any case, Kass delivered “The other war on poverty: Finding meaning in America,” in which he discussed whether Americans, despite our continuing freedom and prosperity, are losing the quest for a meaningful life. Leaving religion aside, he focused on work, love and family, community and country, and the pursuit of truth. It was his discussion of patriotism that most challenged me.

Kass noted that American patriotism is exceptional since the republic was founded on ideas rather than rooted in soil with bonds of blood. He praised the cosmopolitan nature of the country, where anyone can become American by swearing allegiance to it. He went on:

But, as with work and family life, our thinking regarding patriotism has fallen behind our practice. Compared with the cultural attitudes surrounding World War II, and especially since the 1960s, patriotism has come under suspicion, most regrettably among those who teach the young. Our national heroes are debunked, our national achievements belittled, our every sin magnified. Liberal intellectuals—many of them hyper-critical of America—decry nationalism itself, deny the need for patriotic sacrifice, and urge us to join the party of humanity and to see ourselves as ‘citizens of the world.’

Kass discusses how this universalist utopia is unrealistic empty preening, that citizenship by definition is for a specific polity with its own legal system and ways of life. National identity and particularistic attachment aren’t just natural but desirable, he says.

For the vast majority of human beings, life as actually lived is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and—whether we know it or not—give shape, character, and meaning to our lives. One’s feeling for global humanity, however sincere, is based on an abstraction, hard to translate into the concrete and meaningful expressions of interest and concern that lead neighbor actively to care and work for neighbor, Chicagoan for Chicagoan, Texan for Texan, and American for American. Civic self-government—the pride of political achievement—is possible only in the communities in which we actually live, and there can be no robust civic life without patriotic attachment. I am not talking about the psychic boost we give ourselves by yelling ‘USA, USA’ at the Olympics. I am talking, rather, about the genuine elevation of our lives made possible by belonging freely and feelingly to something larger and more worthy than our individual selves.

America is special in its patriotism, Kass says, because of our remarkable history.

The principles of human equality, inalienable rights, and government by consent, newly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, were given operative life in the polity established by the Constitution, under which the United States became and remains a shining example of stable self-government and a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world. We are the privileged heirs of a way of life that has offered the blessings of freedom and dignity to millions of people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and that extols the possibility of individual achievement as far as individual talent and effort can take it. We are also a self-critical nation, whose history is replete with efforts to bring our practices more fully in line with our ideals. And our national history boasts hundreds of thousands of heroic men and women who gave their lives that that nation might live and flourish. To belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but a special calling: to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their spread abroad. As Abraham Lincoln put it, in a call to perpetuate our political institutions: ‘This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.’

So even patriotism and service to the country can and do provide transcendent meaning. That is why the undermining of these ideas and their assault by universities is so troubling. Social scientists have fought the idea of truth in favor of “the mind-deadening and self-indulgent poison that truth, like beauty, lies only in the eyes of the beholder, with each person freely ‘constructing’ reality according to his own tastes. They thus turn what should be shared inquiry seeking understanding into mere fighting seeking victory, using words in place of swords.”

A Patriotic Paradox

From some quarters you will hear “don’t desecrate the flag.” From others you will hear, “don’t ban flag-burning.” Both groups are correct.

We are a country founded on ideals, including the right of revolutionary self-government and the right of unpopular and provocative political expression. This protects the burning of flags. The Supreme Court weighed in on this decades ago, and Justice Antonin Scalia once explained how this works to a befuddled Piers Morgan:

So Trump is flat wrong to push the idea that burning a flag should lead to revocation of citizenship or a year in prison. It is also wrong to denigrate America and her symbols and to spend years inculcating in children and young adults a hatred for America, her founding, and her ideals. Both of these things are dangerous, and the progressive left’s denigration of America is far more insidious and destructive than this morning’s Twitter time with Donald Trump.

CNN Political Reporter Sara Murray responded to Trump’s tweet this morning:

It’s a good line, although the legal material Trump needs is Texas v. Johnson, the controversial Supreme Court decision upholding the right to burn flags, narrowly decided in 1989. We will always have fights about the contours and hard lines around the natural rights we are endowed by our creator, and periodic fights about flag burning are a great opportunity to remind ourselves about freedom of speech.

But if we’re in the business of printing out copies of the First Amendment, let’s make sure to put some on the desks in newsrooms around the country. Maybe reporters will learn there is no need to “scare quote” or otherwise denigrate and push to restrict religious liberty, the first freedom mentioned therein. Maybe reporters will learn to be outraged at all attempts to limit political speech, not just those made by Republican politicians.

Maybe reporters will pay attention when a president’s solicitor general argues, as our current president’s solicitor general did, in front of the Supreme Court that the federal government should be able to ban books over political speech. Maybe reporters will express the same alarm over the Democratic candidate’s belief that the government should be able to restrict political speech that criticizes Democrats as they did Trump’s similar views on speech that criticizes him. One could go on.

It’s also not just the media, but the establishment political left that got on board with the fight to restrict political speech and turn Citizens United over. If Democrats want to be taken seriously when opposing Trump’s plans to limit political speech, they should speak up when President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party push to limit political speech as well. A good example here is Sen. Mitch McConnell, who said:

He cast the deciding vote against that 2005 bill that Hillary Clinton pushed, and he has spoken in favor of Citizens United as well. His consistent voice in defense of freedom of speech is much needed. Pointing out how liberals otherwise support things they hate when Trump does them and how conservatives otherwise oppose things they love when Trump does them should be a teachable moment for all of us.

To that end, may we all work to improve the teaching of civic knowledge and work to improve educational institutions so that they begin to focus once again on preserving the project of self-government based around natural rights.