On Patriotism and the First Amendment

I’ve been off grid for a week, vacationing in the land of Mickey and sunshine.  Returning to the frozen northeast, I find that the political world is turning its myopic brain back to the issue of patriotism as related to Barack Obama and his non-flag-pin-wearing-self.  In an AP article this morning, the question of Obama’s patriotism is once again front and center.  I say, “once again,” because this nonsense was bantered about last summer when Obama was “caught” without his hand over his heart during the Star Spangled Banner.  Oops.  As usual, folks got the story wrong and began spreading the rumor that he didn’t put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.  And then came the flag pin flap.  

I think it’s useful for us to have a bit of a civics lesson.  First, the Star Spangled Banner.  According to The Code for the National Anthem of the United State of America, adopted by the National Anthem Committee in 1942, “the audience will stand facing the flag or the leader in an attitude of respectful attention.”  There is no mention of placing one’s hand over one’s heart.  Yes, it’s customary.  No, it’s not required, but I’m sure you’ll never catch him singing the National Anthem without his hand over his heart again. 

Moving on the the Pledge.  Did you know that it was originally written for a children’s magazine in 1892?  It has gone through several revisions through the years, including the addition of “under God” in 1954.  The form of salute has changed through the years, as well, from an outstretched arm with right palm up (which was way too Hitler like) to the now customary right hand over heart salute.  Barack Obama is clear that he always puts his hand over his heart for the Pledge, whether at school as a boy or leading the Pledge in the Senate.

As of 1940, school children have been compelled to recite the Pledge in school, even if it is against their religion (i.e. Jehovah’s Witnesses).  There is currently a frightening move in Congress to pass legislation, called the Pledge Protection Act, which would strip the judicial branch of “jurisdiction of Federal courts over certain cases and controversies involving the Pledge of Allegiance.”  In other words, folks would no longer be able to sue to retain their right under the first amendment to not say the Pledge in school.   

There is another assault on the first amendment underway regarding the flag.  The first amendment, of course, ensures our freedom of speech.  That freedom allows people to burn our flag.  Oooh, did I make you mad there?  I’m not a proponent of flag burning or desecration, but it is vital that we protect that freedom under the first amendment. 

Year after year, folks in Congress try to pass laws to ban flag burning and desecration, almost strictly for some perceived political gain.  In fact, in 2005, while preparing for her presidential bid, Sen. Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill with Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah that would make flag burning illegal.  In order to do this, they have to amend the Constitution.  Anyone who has read my previous posts knows how I feel about folks mucking about in my Constitution.  If you’re going to mess about with my Constitution, it should only be to guarantee more freedoms, not take them away.  Constitutional changes should be for things like prohibiting slavery (Amendment XIII) or giving women the right to vote (Amendment XIX).  Or for grand Democratic procedural issues like presidential term limits (Amendment XXII).  Sen. Obama, who has taught the Constitution, issued this statement , in part, on the flag burning amendment:

“But we live in a country of laws. Laws are what stop people from resorting to physical violence to settle disagreements, and laws are what protect free speech. And when I became a Senator, I swore an oath to protect the Constitution. Under that oath, my first allegiance is not to a political party, or to an ideology, or to a president, or even to popular opinion, but to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

“The Framers made it difficult to amend the Constitution because our founding document should not be changed just because of political concerns or temporary problems. And even the strongest supporters of this amendment are hard-pressed to find more than a few instances of flag burning each year. Those problems were left to be solved through legislation, and I support legislation introduced by Senator Durbin that makes it illegal to burn the flag without changing the Constitution. The Constitution has only been amended 27 times. These amendments include guarantees of our most basic freedoms, the freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, the protection against cruel punishment.

“Today, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops risking their lives for their country, looking to us to come up with a plan to win the peace so they can come home. Across America, there are millions who are looking for us to do something about health care, about education, about energy. The Senate will likely be in session for about 50 more days for the rest of this year. To spend the precious time we have left battling an epidemic of flag burning that does not exist is a disservice to our country.

“As Richard Savage of Bloomington, Illinois wrote to me, “I am a Vietnam veteran and Republican. . . . Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself.” Mr. Savage is right, which is why I will vote against this amendment. Senator Durbin’s amendment is a way forward to balance our respect for the flag with reverence for the Constitution.”

Putting aside the fundamental problems I have with amending the Constitution for this issue, let’s look at what this would actually mean.  Even according to the current state laws on the books regarding the use of the flag, hundreds of people should be arrested, fined and even jailed for their improper use of the flag.  Car dealers who use the flag on their literature are breaking the law.  Political parties who use the flag on their letterheads are breaking the law.  Ordinary citizens who wear flag bathings suits, use flag bandanas, have flag doormats are breaking the laws of many states.  No one, however, is arrested, except in the very rare, nightly news making instance when they take flame and burn the flag in extreme protest over something.  Their arrests, and the state laws on the books, are, however, unconstitutional in the face of the first amendment.  If, however, we change the constitution to make flag desecration illegal, the police could come into your home and arrest you on July 4 for using flag napkins.  They won’t, of course, but then we’ll be walking down the slippery path of selective enforcement and I can’t imagine anyone wanting that. 

We don’t want folks to burn the flag in protest.  On the opposite extreme, we get really, really pissed if a politician doesn’t wear the flag pin.  I’m not going to argue this one on behalf of Barack Obama.  Let me just show you a couple of pictures.

This is Hillary Clinton as she announces her candidacy for the presidency via the web.  Do you see a flag pin?  I don’t.  Seems like a pretty important occasion. 

Watch the Speech

This is a picture from the front page of John McCain’s website.  Do you see a flag pin?  I don’t.  Seems like a pretty prominent place to have your picture.

So when is it appropriate to wear a flag pin and when isn’t it?  What are the rules?  Do you only wear one on TV?  Do you only wear one in red states?  Do you only wear one in front of military audiences?  Barack Obama is clear:  he doesn’t wear a flag pin as a stand in symbol of his patriotism.  He is a patriot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and he doesn’t need a pin to prove it.

We get really worked up in this country over perceived patriotism.  Perhaps there can be no greater show of patriotism than joining in the democratic process and running for office.  Deciding to sacrifice one’s life for politics, to put one’s family under a microscope, to have one’s every move dissected in the hope of helping our country make the changes and enact the laws and policies that will help us remain the strongest democracy on earth is, perhaps, the strongest evidence of patriotism one can ever hope to offer.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “On Patriotism and the First Amendment

  1. Pingback: Presidential election 2008 |Republicans Vs. Democrats » On Patriotism and the First Amendment

  2. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Cyrenaican

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