Senator Feinstein's flag protection missive: illogic for all

June 25, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- Thank you, Dianne Feinstein.

Composition teachers all over the country are indebted to the Democratic senator from California for an editorial published Tuesday in USA Today. Instead of tearing their hair out trying to instruct students in the finer points of logic, rhetoric and critical thinking, teachers will henceforth be able to simply pull out Ms. Feinstein's piece and say, "Don't do this." They will never find a better illustration of a bad argument badly made.

Ms. Feinstein is co-sponsor of something called the Flag Protection Amendment, the latest congressional effort to amend the Constitution to protect the U.S. flag from "desecration" - an interesting word, given its connotations of religious devotion.

Her editorial in support of the amendment certainly hits all the patriotic sweet spots, invoking the image of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, reminding us that the flag is a symbol of "our democracy, our shared values, our commitment to justice, and our eternal memory of those who have sacrificed to defend these principles."

But there's more. Ms. Feinstein notes that Congress has power to protect the Lincoln Memorial from defilement, so surely it should have similar power to protect the flag, "our monument in cloth." She denies the amendment would infringe on free speech because, she says, "there is no idea or thought expressed by the burning of the American flag that cannot be expressed equally well in another manner."

As arguments go, this one has it all - pathos, tears, drama. Everything except logic.

The comparison to the Lincoln Memorial, for example, might make sense if the flag were a single iconic structure housed on federal land instead of a banner that shows up on fanny packs, T-shirts, used-car lots and suburban mailboxes.

As for the idea that anyone who wants to express an idea by burning the flag can express the same idea equally well through other means, that's not her call. Who is she to tell me - or you, or anyone - what means we may or may not use to express a political opinion? If someone loathes their country and wants to express that opinion, who is she to decide what words, methods or approach that person is allowed to use? If free speech means anything, it means that she doesn't have that right.

Ms. Feinstein, by the way, is reacting to a crisis that does not exist. You know how many flag "desecrations" there have been this year? Twenty-five, you think? A dozen?

There have been three. This is according to the Citizens Flag Alliance, a group that "supports" the proposed amendment. Three. More people were struck by lightning. Heck, I bet more people spontaneously combusted.

So essentially what we have here is an effort to amend the Constitution and abridge the First Amendment in order to stop people from doing what people aren't doing. Am I the only one who finds this more than faintly ridiculous?

The rapper Chuck D, among others, calls them "weapons of mass distraction," these periodic outbursts of noise and inanity whereby our leaders attempt to hijack the public's attention, direct it away from anything that means anything. As the use of those weapons go, this one feels especially cynical, playing as it does on love of country and respect for the sacrifices of forebears.

But maybe we should love the one and respect the other enough to stand up for real American ideals and demand that our representatives do the same, rather than play games of symbolism that solve no problems, address no issues and insult our collective intelligence in the process.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands. But there's a big difference between honoring the flag and fetishizing it. Especially at the cost of doing violence to the Constitution. Apparently nobody cares if we desecrate that.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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