The following was originally read live at The Paper Machete, Chicago’s live magazine.
Early Tuesday morning, at a time when any decent person is either sleeping or flicking their bean to drawings of slutty fox boys on Tumblr, President-Elect Trump was engaged in masturbation of a different kind: shitposting on Twitter. The focus of his latest red-hot diarrheal spew, of course, was flag burning. “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” he wrote. “If they do, there must be consequences, perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
Now, in this room of progressive iconoclasts, all of whom have been filled to the brim with political resentment and rage for about a month now, the correct response to Trump’s statement is a foregone conclusion. But you’re not getting the incendiary money shot yet. First, you’re getting a history lesson.
The American flag, created in 1777, wasn’t a widely adopted American symbol until reconstruction. Pre-Civil-War, America was a hodgepodge of independent states; after the War, unifying under a national identity became paramount. To create that unified identity, the country needed a symbol. To infuse that symbol with importance, it had to be defended against an imaginary threat.
And so, in 1897, the first laws banning flag desecration were passed. These laws prohibited “mutilating, defacing, defying or casting contempt” against Betsy Ross’ favorite textile. Nevermind that flags weren’t actually being burned or desecrated at all, at the time. Flag Desecration Statues sprouted up across the states, enshrining the star-spangled banner in a protective barrier that, by its very existence, implied the symbol was under attack.
These laws turned the flag into an icon both of American freedom, and of the exact line where that freedom ends. The message was clear: America is perfect, and you are free…to do anything but contradict the first half of that sentence. It was following the passage of these statues that flag burning began to appear, in protest of the laws themselves.
Flash forward to 1984. Anti-flag desecration laws were in place in 48 states, including Texas, where protestor Gregory Johnson was arrested for burning a flag outside the Republican National Convention. Johnson was fined $2000 and sent to prison for one year, but appeals landed his case in the Supreme Court.
In a 5–4 majority that somehow included Antonin Scalia (RIP, I guess), the court overturned Johnson’s conviction. Justice William Brennan wrote that “government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol”. This rendered unconstitutional all laws banning desecration of the flag. And despite numerous Congressional attempts at passing new bans, torching Old Glory has remained legal ever since.
Which brings us back to Trump. It’s easy to scoff at his threat to jail or strip the citizenship of flag burners, but don’t let your scorn seduce you into complacency. What Trump is proposing might be illegal, but it has teeth: flag burning bans are, and have always been, incredibly popular. Though every attempt at a national flag burning ban has failed, it’s always come close. In 2006, a flag burning amendment failed to pass in the Senate by just one vote. That Amendment had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton.
Flag burning bans are even more enticing to the American public. Gallup has polled Americans about this topic for decades, and support for a flag burning ban has always hovered between 60 and 70% of people. And political tolerance research has consistently shown for the last fifty years that a majority of Americans support curtailing the free speech of groups they dislike.
Don’t be lulled by the inanity of Trump’s comments — and don’t mistake them for a distracting red herring, either. They’re a canary in the coal mine– and we’re all facing a very real threat of asphyxiation. The country that Trump famously claimed was no longer “great” is now, somehow, beyond reproach. His supporters, brash and loud as they might be, would love to see speech that offends them snuffed out.
This struggle is bigger than policy or individual politicians, though — it’s a conflict about the nature of America itself. Will we be a country forever capable of self-critique — no matter how unpleasant, inflammatory, and offensive — or will we hide all contempt behind superficially good feelings like nationalism, patriotism, and pride?
Flag burning is reviled because it is implicitly violent. It’s destructive, it’s dismissive, it’s negative. It’s not respectful or simpering. It’s the exact opposite of supplicating in the name of “unity”. It’s difficult to deal with. And in the US, we have a long and storied history of shoving “difficult” people into internment camps, reservations, mental institutions, and prisons, and burying “difficult” ideas under a deluge of red, white, and blue niceties.
With each act of speech, or silencing, we vote for the kind of nation we want to live in. Every time we tell someone to be polite, to rephrase their position, to change their tone, to pray for unity, or to stop discussing upsetting topics at the Thanksgiving table we are voting for a more passive, cowed, superficially “nice” America. Every time we organize, bitch, moan, start arguments, send letters, call a spade a spade and an alt-right activist a Nazi, we are voting for a more turbulent, fiery America. But fuck, at least it’s an honest one.
At our best, we are a nation of immigrants, escaped slaves, refugees, suffragettes, striking workers, and other unpleasantly candid voices. At our worst, we are a deadly quiet, eerily beautiful plantation where no fuss is made and human bodies are exchanged and owned under a veneer of politesse. If this country can be made great, it won’t be by sentimentally gazing at old relics through a sepia filter. It will be by shining a bright, burning hot light of scrutiny upon the flag, at all times, letting the truth burn and purge its most toxic threads away.
Ash, after all, is high in nitrogen. It makes for nourishing soil, fertile to new growth.
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Thanks to the staff of the Green Mill, stage manager Leah Munsey, and host Chris Piatt for their confidence in & support of this choice. Thanks to JC for the pics.