July 6 - July 12, 1995

Congress Takes On A Burning Issue.

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


WHEN GIVEN THE choice of being five days early or two days late, pick late, it's easier on your nervous system.

It has taken me the better part of half a century to attain this wisdom, and indeed I might never have mounted this aerie of enlightenment had it not been for a cadre of New Age women who have cruised through my life over the past four years. They have, with consistency and some small degree of success, argued that I am too much the classic Type A, carnivorous, over-aggressive, testosterone-driven Western male. I was, and to a lesser extent still am, prompt, diligent, full of cheeseburgers and pretty well wound-up.

After four years of philosophical instruction and behavioral modification I am, to a modest extent, less of the above and more relaxed about deadlines, inclined toward not sweating the small stuff, full of lettuce and wound down toward mellow.

So in the spirit of the preceding, let me be the last to wish you a happy Fourth of July. Viva la Independencia.

It is altogether fitting that these felicitations should arrive post-dated, because we in America today are pretty much post-marked. We are marked as the first generation of post-literate Americans, television having supplanted the printed word as the source-of-choice for the nation's information, enlightenment and entertainment. We are likewise (and for the purposes of this discussion, "we" is defined as the Baby Boom generation, ranging from 50 down to around 40 in age,) the first crop of post-peak Americans. By this I mean that our country, our nation, has passed the pinnacle of its greatness and begun the slide into decline. How rapidly and how far we will fall depends not entirely but largely on us and our heirs over the next couple of generations.

At present the signs do not augur well, but I remain optimistic because this is my nature and because history and personal experience have taught me that things can only stay bad about so long, or get worse about so much, before they get better again. And so on.

So with this sunny forecast in mind, let me say that it was a dark day in American history, two weeks ago, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a nearly three-to-one margin, a constitutional amendment criminalizing the desecration of the American flag. It is symptomatic of a civilization in decline that it places greater value on the symbols of its historic highlight reel than in the substance of the strength and freedom that constitute true greatness.

Thus has the House of Representatives declared that it will not tolerate free expression that offends its sensibilities or those of the majority; that the nation lacks the strength any more to withstand criticism from within; that the flag as symbol is not powerful enough to be venerated even when torn down, burned and spat upon. And I am certain that the founders of this country, the men and women who fought to establish it and who wrote the documents which were the blueprint for perhaps the greatest nation in world history, would agree with me.

Because this poignantly timed national debate is not merely a matter of symbolism. While the Stars and Stripes is one of our national symbols--though not the only one--and though the passage of this constitutional amendment by the House is meant to be symbolic of the conservative retreat back to the 18th-century values and politics, the net result, should the Senate pass the amendment and the states ratify it, would be very real indeed.

It would amount to a serious erosion of the first article of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right of free speech.

And so it has been held, by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court, at least twice previous when nearly identical statutes have been constitutionally tested.

It's not all that complicated, really--just another of the many forms of nonverbal communication that come under the real-world definition of speech as expression of thought, belief, emotion. When you flip somebody the finger you are "speaking" to that somebody in a nonverbal, and not very friendly, way. When you set a match to Old Glory you're doing the same kind of thing, and you are exercising--also in a not very friendly nor very popular way--the personal right that Tom Jefferson and Jim Madison and a bunch of other guys you read about in school, thought most important among human freedoms.

Ask yourself seriously and honestly: Does it harm you or the nation in any real, tangible way to see the flag burned? Unless your name is Don Mackey and that flag is the size of a football field and you paid for it with your own money, no. Does it harm you or the nation emotionally, spiritually? Hell no. If anything, witnessing a flag-burning is going to stir you to greater patriotism, or to deeper consideration of the issues behind the symbolic desecration of this national symbol. Whichever way your disposition turns you, it's not likely to render you or anyone mortally injured or even flesh-wounded.

This nation was founded by a bunch of malcontents who'd had a bellyfull of British rule and monarchic pomposity. They were visionaries but they had a practical bent. They put people above symbols, whether rendered in the gold and jewels of a king's crown, or the red, white and blue cotton cloth of a flag.

If the United States of America is going to enjoy a long, honorable and productive maturity, now that we have passed the prime of our youth, we must rededicate ourselves to the rights, and the responsibilities, that came with the freedom our nation won 219 years ago.

We need to remember that the strongest individuals and the strongest nations are by their very nature, mongrel. Hybrid vigor and all that. And as a mongrel population, we ought to be tolerant of the different limbs and organs within our own body politic. When we punish one of us for disagreeing with or outright offending the rest of us, we are practicing masochism and self-destruction.

As the old truism goes, if the least of us (and here you may substitute weirdest and most obnoxious of us) is not free, then none of us is free.

Let's hear it for the Bill of Rights.

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July 6 - July 12, 1995

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