29 November 2016
The Burning Issue
Does the President-elect even know that what he proposed in a recent tweet -- that flag burners be prosecuted and possibly stripped of their citizenship -- is unconstitutional according to a Supreme Court majority that included arch-conservative Antonin Scalia? Is he aware that he would need to amend the Constitution to get his way -- if it's really his will and not just his feeling -- or else appoint justices committed to overturning the existing precedent? My answer to both questions is "probably not," but it's unclear whether those fretting over Trump's tweet realize either, or care, that the Constitution stands in his way. For them it's just further proof of Trump's "authoritarian" tendencies, his desire to crush dissent he deems unpatriotic. I saw some of the Morning Joe show this morning and saw the host argue passionately with one of his panelists that the tweet was no further cause for panic, precisely because the Constitution blocked any action against flag burners, while the panelist insisted just as passionately that Trump's mere desire to punish them proved that Americans had cause to fear his presidency. Of course, that fear is magnified by the assumption that millions share Trump's desire, and in this case liberals' assumptions about the attitudes of Trump voters are closer to the mark than usual. There is decreasing tolerance for perceived disrespect for the flag, whether it's professional athletes refusing to salute it or at least one college in Massachusetts refusing to raise it as a protest against Trump's election. There's an increasing divergence in attitudes embittering those for whom the flag represents the nation and all its people, living and dead, toward those for whom it represents their pet peeve of the moment, who think they can withhold a salute to protest that specific thing without being accused of disrespecting bigger things. Like it or not, in an age of insecurity most people are going to demand more positive and overt proof of loyalty to nation (and not just its constitution) than liberals typically feel necessary. That's not an argument against civil liberties and the prerogatives of dissent, but consider it a warning that dissent may require more courage than many of us are accustomed to. Liberals don't like "with us or against us" arguments because they sound unconditional, if not also because they don't feel obliged to prove to other people, much less the stereotypical Trump voter, that they're good Americans. But to the extent that the United States is a democracy, mutual accountability means that all people have the right at least to ask where others stand, and draw conclusions from their answers. They have a right to wonder whether those who take liberties with national symbols because the nation isn't living up to their ideals can be counted on to defend or support the nation to the fullest extent. The only problem with making flag burning or flag rituals the focus of this concern is that those who pose real threats to the nation aren't likely to be dumb enough to draw attention to themselves with such overt displays of "disloyalty." It's more likely that flags are burnt or ignored by disappointed lovers of their country than by those who've never given a damn about it.