Go On, Amend Away

Should flag burning be outlawed by Constitutional amendment?

BY Laura S. Washington

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Let's focus on issues, not symbols. If the Democrats get sucked into a debate about who is the most patriotic, they're dead.

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” opined 17th century writer and critic Samuel Johnson.

Scoundrels abound in the perennial campaign for a constitutional amendment to outlaw the desecration of the American flag. The latest salvo, which failed to pass the U.S. Senate last month by one vote, bore telltale fingerprints of the Republicans’ politically astute chief scoundrel, Karl Rove. 

The measure failed the Senate by a vote of 66 to 34. A constitutional amendment must pass by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. Rove and Co. are already taking names. 

They know that the flag burning amendment has zero to do with substance and everything to do with politics. Republicans are trying to jam Democrats on a distracting non-issue, bound to paint any Democrat who nixed the bill as a flag-burning-commie-pinko. The Democrats, however, are even bigger scoundrels–for falling for it. Only 14 Democratic senators supported the would-be 28th Amendment. Every single Dem should have. I say, give it to ‘em–and wrench this silly idea off the flagpole forever.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that burning the American flag is protected under our constitutional right to free speech. Since then, conservatives have repeatedly pushed for the extraordinary step of amending the U.S. Constitution to protect the red, white and blue. All I see is red–a red herring that the Republicans have resurrected so many times that it smells like three-day-old trout.

The marriage amendment, Internet gambling, abortion rights, the Pledge of Allegiance. These “causes” are not aimed at changing policy, but at revving up electoral turnout.

During the run up to the most recent vote, the measure’s sponsor, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, said: “Is this the most important thing the Senate could be doing at this time? I can tell you: You’re darned right it is.”

Duh. Can anyone out there help me out with a few things the senator might have overlooked?

During the Senate debate that preceded the vote, Sen. John Coryn, a Texas Republican, attacked the Godless liberal intelligentsia. “What becomes of a country that has no special symbols, that somehow over the passage of time has deemed itself too sophisticated, too intelligent, too cynical to be choked by emotion when our flag is raised or when the pledge is spoken or when our national anthem is sung?”

Duh again. Has he been to a baseball game lately?

For progressives, the flag debate is an opportunity to achieve political maturity. Let’s focus on issues, not symbols. If the Democrats get sucked into a debate about who is the most patriotic, they’re dead. 

We know all the arguments about protecting free speech. But we also know that the spoken words of this Republican administration–and even more important, its acts–have already done much to dishonor the stars and stripes. 

The supporters of this ban are big on symbolic causes that can be used as cudgels to clobber anyone who attempts an intelligent, nuanced position. 

For example, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois posited a reasonable end-run around the ban. Suggesting that that U.S. Supreme Court was likely to knock down the amendment, Durbin pitched a measure that would have criminalized the desecration of the flag. The Senate promptly shot that down, 64 to 36.

Even if a constitutional amendment wins a nod from Congress, it still must be approved by three-quarters of all the states. Since 19 states are firmly ensconced in the land of blue, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. 

So let’s get this one off the table for good. I predict that like clockwork, the scoundrels will dig up their dream amendment once again in 2008, just in time for the presidential wars as a Rovian litmus test for Democratic contenders.

When that happens, the Democrats should gleefully push it right through Congress, then let the Republicans carry the water in the 50 states. They’ll waste a lot of time and resources and the measure is sure to fall to an ignominious death in America’s statehouses.

Hillary Clinton has figured that one out. Clinton, who voted for the ban, has been a longtime co-sponsor of Durbin’s criminalization proposal. She argued that Durbin’s plan was an acceptable compromise that could protect the flag without messing with the Constitution. 

Hillary has been pilloried by the left for the crime of pragmatism. Critics cite the position as just another one of her trademark machinations aimed at setting herself up for a 2008 presidential run. They may call Clinton many things, but they will never call her stupid. That’s why she’s so good. She hit the nail on the head on this one.  

Stars and stripes forever. Democrats, let’s reclaim the flag. 

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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