Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Well, golly. A few things:
- This is outrageous. Burning the flag is protected speech. It is highly offensive speech, but it is political speech, and is therefore constitutionally protected. This is just trolling. Lots of politicians take this brave, brave stand against flag burning, and have for years, to no effect. It ticks off liberals and libertarians, but satisfies the populist base.
- Passing a law against burning the flag is as American as apple pie. I think it’s dumb, but it’s a popular activity among Congress members — including some Democrats. Look:
Worth noting 12 D Senators joined the last effort to ban flag burning (including Feinstein and Reid). One vote away from passing. pic.twitter.com/wYJq33zfVv
— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) November 29, 2016
- But HEY, “loss of citizenship or year in jail”?! That’s crazy. The fact that an incoming American president would float such an idea is unnerving. You don’t say things like that if you’re the president, or the incoming president. Laugh this one off as Trump being Trump, but you know we’re going to have this kind of thing for the next four years, right? Waking up and being confronted with some crackhead thing POTUS has said.
- Why is Trump doing this, aside from the fact that he believes it? Why this, why now? The answer is probably because Trump has no self-discipline, and this is the first thing that occurred to him when he picked up his smartphone and logged into Twitter today. An alternative answer is because he is probably trying to stoke up nationalist sentiment to use for political purposes down the road.
- Specifically, he’s baiting the activist left, which is probably gathering kindling and accelerant for its flag-burning demonstrations right this very second. These will be shown on national TV and spread via social media, and the masses, disgusted by it, will deepen their emotional identification with President Trump, defender of the nation and its symbols.
- Is it too much to hope that this is a teaching moment for the left regarding the First Amendment? The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, yes, but also the free exercise of religion. You find it outrageous that an incoming president would seek to penalize political speech? So do I. But guess what: the reason so many religious conservatives voted for Trump is that so many liberal politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were far too willing to trample the free exercise rights of Americans when those rights clashed with progressive policy goals. Tough titty, Gordon College! Too bad for you, Little Sisters of the Poor. For millions of us voters, what the Obama Administration was doing to the First Amendment rights of those religious dissenters (policies that a putative Clinton Administration was going to support and extend) was a really big deal. It would do people like us well to remember that to arrest any enthusiasm for Trump’s imprison-the-flag-burners proposal. But in exactly the same way, it would also do the left good to recognize that the First Amendment is not only about protecting the kind of expression your side likes.
- Suddenly, this is once again James Davison Hunter’s moment. Hunter is the sociologist who coined the term “culture wars” in his 1992 book about them. Now would be a good time for producers to put him on their speed dial.
Why do we keep getting wound up about burning the flag? you may ask. Easy answer: Jeez, if you have to ask… . Longer answer: because the flag, though a secular symbol, is the symbol of our nation. This is a perfectly obvious statement, but spend a moment thinking about what that means. It stands for us, together. To burn it is an act of deepest contempt for America as a nation. It’s the sort of thing our enemies do. To burn the flag as an American, on American soil, is a kind of blasphemy, a defiling of values that people hold sacred.
One reason Donald Trump will be our next president is that tens of millions of people are deeply anxious about our identity as a nation, and our future as a nation. You should not mock or otherwise belittle those concerns. They are deeply human. This is what the Brexit vote was about. The Mexican border wall Trump proposes to build is not really about keeping Mexicans out, but rather about an attempt to regain control over national identity: over the power of the people to define what it means to be a Nation. If you don’t see this as important, you are blind. You are dangerously blind. This is what drove Brexit, as much as economics: the fear that Britons are losing control of their own land and identity to foreigners, and that their own political, cultural, and business elites are selling their own people out for the sake of personal gain or an economic and political abstraction called “Europe”.
Understand: I’m not asking you to share those opinions. I am asking — no, I’m telling — you that if you don’t take this kind of thing seriously, you’re going to continue being surprised by what happens politically in this country, and not have the slightest idea how to respond to it effectively.
I have to make a confession here. Maybe you’ve been following the flag controversy at Hampshire College. Here’s a bit of background, from the NYT:
Students at Hampshire had lowered the flag to half-staff on Nov. 9, in a “reaction to the toxic tone of the monthslong election,” the college said in a statement.
The following day, it said, officials decided to allow the flag to remain lowered for a period of time while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community.”
Some on campus perceived the flag as “a powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up in marginalized communities, never feeling safe,” the college’s president, Jonathan Lash, said in a statement.
Sometime the evening of Nov. 10 or in the early morning on Nov. 11, the flag was burned, an episode that campus police are still investigating. The flag was immediately replaced, and the college’s board of trustees voted to continue to fly it at half-staff, “to mourn deaths from violence in the U.S. and around the world,” it said in an email.
But within a week Mr. Lash had sent an email announcing that the flag was to be taken down altogether, noting that “some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election. This, unequivocally, was not our intent.”
He added that there was not a campuswide ban on the flag, as had been mistakenly reported.
Hampshire College is an elite liberal arts college in western Massachusetts.
When I first read that, I was disgusted. These snotty kids and the campus administrators are turning their back on America because they don’t like the results of the election?!
But then I thought about how I would be feeling had things gone the other way. No, I would not have remotely felt that way about the American flag. But for some time now, as I have watched the United States become post-Christian, and over the past few years, as I’ve watched the US Government — including its courts — grow ever more hostile to the Christian faith and Christian moral truth, I too have felt myself losing faith in the ideal of America as a nation. My loyalty to God is more important than my loyalty to America, and if you are any kind of religious believer — Christian, Jew, Muslim, whatever — you must feel the same way. You hope and pray you will never be forced to choose between the two, but believers have been compelled to make that choice many times in the history of the world. Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Silence is about such a time in Japanese history.
I would never, ever burn the American flag. It’s repulsive to me. It would feel like burning the clothes of your own father, mother, and ancestors. A good man (or woman) does not burn the American flag. But what about displaying the flag? I can foresee at some point in the future — distant, for now — losing heart for the display of the flag, as a symbol of losing heart in the idea of America. The more hostile the nation (not only its government) becomes to my most sacred beliefs, the less identification I feel with it.
So: after I got over my visceral disgust with the Hampshire College students and faculty, I thought about how I would feel if Hillary Clinton had won, and I had to resign myself to an even more aggressive attack by Washington on the beliefs and expression of people like me, I would have been feeling pretty discouraged about America The Nation. Had I been the president of a small Christian college, I certainly would not have lowered the national standard, and I would have told students who demanded that I do so to go to chapel and pray for the good of the country.
But I would have done so with a heavy heart and a furrowed brow, wondering how long I could do that in good conscience. Thinking about this made me push past my anger at the Hampshire College liberals, and find some empathy. I’m not a Trump fan, but it shouldn’t be hard for those who are, and for conservatives in general, to understand why so many Americans are angry and afraid, and feeling alienated from the nation.
I don’t know what we do about this, to be honest, but I do know that we need to be thinking about it, and acting on it. I’ll tell you what’s been on my mind this week: Amos Pierce.
Amos Pierce is the father of actor Wendell Pierce. I got to know him, a bit, working with Wendell on his 2015 memoir The Wind In The Reeds. Amos is a New Orleans native and a decorated World War II veteran. I blogged about Amos’s patriotism here, and I cannot urge you strongly enough to read the whole thing — or even better (much better!), read The Wind In The Reeds. In this passage from the book, Wendell reaches the end of his father’s saga over the combat medals he had earned in the South Pacific, but which a Fort Hood officer processing his discharge stateside denied Amos, saying that “no nigger could have won” all those medals.
Amos kept that humiliation to himself, and never let the sons he would later have know what America had done to their father, because he was black. Amos raised his boys to be patriots, even though they were born into a segregated America. In this passage, Wendell remembers being at the fights in New Orleans with his dad at some point in the late 1960s or early 1970s, during the heyday of the Black Power movement:
That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”
“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.
“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”
Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.
That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”
The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.
At some point over the last decade, Wendell found out that his father had been denied medals he earned. He enlisted the help of the local media, and then-US Sen. Mary Landrieu, to get to the bottom of it, and to right that injustice. Once the Defense Department discovered what it — what the nation — owed to Amos Pierce, it set up a medal awards ceremony at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Wendell takes us there:
[Black veterans] loved the country that persecuted them, and treated them like the enemy. To me, that is a vision of supreme patriotism. It’s like my father always said to my brothers and me, every time we would see a triumph of American ideals: “See, that’s why I fought for that flag!”
Amos Pierce never stopped fighting for that flag, and never stopped loving it, either. On the day he finally received his medals, he said nothing at the formal ceremony, but in the gala afterward, he decided that he wanted to offer a few words to the crowd.
He hobbled over to the microphone, and despite his hearing loss, spoke with ringing clarity.
“I want you all to remember those who didn’t come back, I want to dedicate this night to them,” he said. “So many who fought didn’t even have a chance to live their lives. I was given that chance, as difficult as my life has been.”
Daddy thanked the audience for the honor, saying he was not bitter for having been denied the medals for so long. He was simply grateful to have them now.
“We’ve come so far as a country,” he continued. “I’ve realized now a lot of what we were fighting for.”
And then he paused. It took all of his strength to stand as erect as possible at the podium. He saluted crisply, and said, “God bless America.”
That’s when I lost it. For someone not to be debilitated by pain and anger and embarrassment after all he had been through; who fought for this country when this country didn’t love him and wouldn’t fight for him; to come back from war and still have to fight for the right to vote and the right to go into any establishment he wanted to – that made me think of the vow he made to me as a child: “No matter what, son, I will never abandon you.”
I have never known a greater man than that old soldier on the night he received his due.
I tell you what, I literally have tears in my eyes now, just reading that again. Believe me, you want to read the entire book. Since I first heard that story from Wendell himself, and met his father, who is still alive, but in poor health, I have always countered my own pessimism about America’s future by turning my thoughts to Amos Pierce’s patriotism. That man fought for an America that was extremely unjust to him and his people, and he still kept faith with America even when it gave him reason not to. If Amos Pierce’s faith can overcome what he was made to suffer, what’s my excuse? What’s yours? You know?
America and Americans, both left and right, could use a whole lot of Amos Pierce right now. I know I could. Wendell is a passionate liberal Democrat, and I am … not, but we are united in boundless respect for the great man and American hero Amos C. Pierce. In this time of great division, which so many people, especially our President-elect, seemed determined to exacerbate and exploit, I hope some journalists — broadcast and print — will reach out to Wendell and get him to talk about his Daddy and America. Again: we need it, all of us.
Here’s a PBS Newshour story on Wendell’s work rebuilding his inundated New Orleans neighborhood after Katrina. The whole thing is worth watching, but you can meet Amos Pierce after around the 2:30 mark. If you think about burning the flag, imagine doing so in front of Amos Pierce. If you can still do it, well, you are beyond help. I can’t even imagine lowering it in despair in front of that great American. So he gives me hope. If you despair of America — and most of us have our moments — let Amos Pierce carry the weight for you until you regain your footing. That’s what I try to do:
UPDATE: Great comment from Steve S.:
Excellent post. As a veteran who wore the American flag patch on my shoulder downrange, I have many of the same feelings of anger at those who burn the flag, mostly because I think they do it in a facile way and to signal their hip, against-the-Man virtue. I’ve seen friends and comrades whose coffins have been draped in that flag. Like someone once said on this blog, there is a stench of the Leftie version of “cheap grace” in actions like burning the flag.
That being said, I also get very annoyed by the hyper-jingoism that I often encounter from many on the Right. Cheerleading for endless war, ignoring veterans’ serious needs, failing to account for the bloody debacle of Iraq…all of these are sins of those who would consider themselves loyal patriots who would never burn the flag. But as long as they sing along with Lee Greenwood and fist-pump at F-16 flyovers, then it’s all good. This is just as cheap and insulting as the college kids at Hampshire who want to burn the flag.
I understand that the American flag is a symbol that can be received in different ways. In this way, it is similar to a Crucifix, which for me is a sign of God’s infinite love and self-emptying for us sinners. But I understand that it can signify hostility, pain, and fear for a Jew. As a Christian, it saddens me profoundly that anyone can look upon a Crucifix and feel that way, but I have to respect that powerful symbols like the Crucifix and the American flag can be powerful in good and bad ways.