Isaiah J. Poole
July 01, 2006
Isaiah J. Poole is the executive editor of TomPaine.com.
I have decided against burning an American flag during the Independence Day holiday, now that the Senate failed—albeit narrowly—to approve a constitutional amendment that would ban flag desecration. But I am sure I will be tempted sometime between now and the end of the campaign season to break out my matches and aim for the stars and stripes—in part because of what I got out of a Sunday school lesson.
Back in Sunday school, we were regaled with Bible stories about idol worship. You see, one sure way to make the Creator of the Universe mad was to imbue something with powers that actually resided in the Creator alone. The Old Testament is filled with stories of wrath directed at people who substituted fealty to a transcendent God with worship of their own creations.
Symbols are, of course, another matter. We use symbols all the time to represent concepts, values, events, actions and things. Some symbols we are moved to treat with great respect, because we value what the symbol represents. But the symbol, no matter how much we respect it, remains just that—a symbol.
The Fourth of July is an excellent day to ponder the distinction between symbols and idols. Many residents will hang an American flag outside their home on this day to show their love and respect for America. But many of us who revere the symbol will recall our disgust that what the symbol represents is being debased at an accelerated pace. Meanwhile, many conservative lawmakers this summer and fall would have us idolizing what is, once the reality behind the symbol is lost, just a piece of fabric.
It is not just the debate on the constitutional amendment that is so distressing, with its all-too-common combination of craven Republican pandering to intolerance and Democratic cowardice—although that debate in itself was breathtaking for the disregard the amendment’s backers have for the bedrock values of the Constitution and for their own intellectual inconsistency. “Principles are not creatures of convenience,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said at one point on the Senate floor, even as he defended circumscribing the First Amendment because “the American people” are offended when a First Amendment expression of dissent includes burning the flag as opposed to burning, say, copies of the Constitution.
Frankly, I would be more upset by those who would burn the Constitution, both literally and figuratively, for their convenience—as would Hatch and his conservative colleagues in Congress. One of the most chilling threads running through much of the right’s rhetoric is the vitriol they direct at “unelected judges” who are merely doing that they are supposed to do in a democracy: serving as a check against a legislative and executive branch that otherwise unrestrained would usurp minority rights and would replace the rule of law with the rule of the mob—or a mob boss. Instead of respecting the checks and balances envisioned by the nation’s founders, Republicans have systematically stacked the judiciary with judges who will rarely, if ever, challenge the right-wing agenda. Their preferred courts do not interfere even when the agenda involves blatant disdain for the constitutional principles of “justice” and “the general welfare.” Hence the Republican-stacked Supreme Court, within the last week, saw no problem with gerrymandering congressional districts in Texas for the sole purpose of consolidating their power and depriving Democrats of representation.
As the Senate sought to protect the nation from flag-burners, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress were mobilizing the torch-and-pitchfork-bearing hordes against The New York Times and other media outlets that had published details of the administration’s surveillance of bank records—by many accounts, simply affirming what has already been placed in the public record by members of the Bush administration and others. On June 29, the House even passed a resolution declaring ominously that the disclosure “unnecessarily complicated efforts by the United States Government to prosecute the war on terror and may have placed the lives of Americans in danger.” No one actually knows that to be true, and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke disputed this claim in Friday’s New York Times . Such attacks from Republican politicians say to the news media, in essence: Buzz off when someone in the Bush administration wants to drape the confidentiality cloak over its actions.
“By disclosing this in time of war, they have compromised America's antiterrorist policies,” said Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, on Fox and on every other news channel—without offering a hint of evidence to back his charge of treasonous behavior. In fact, he used the word “war” three times in a June 25 Fox interview in under a minute. Never mind that there is no declared war with a defined end, only an amorphous “war on terror” that will no doubt last into perpetuity. King would nonetheless set fire to the page of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press so that no pesky member of the public—whether from a major newspaper or a bedroom blog—could seriously challenge an executive branch violation of our bedrock principles.
Patriots honor the country’s core values. Idolaters worship symbols. Fortunately, during the flag debate in the Senate, a few senators showed they know the difference. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a first-termer from Delaware, put it this way: “I believe we desecrate our flag and what it symbolizes when we send American troops off to war without the body armor that they and their Humvees are supposed to have."
He went on to say “we desecrate what our flag symbolizes” when election officers impede the right to vote by through such tactics as misallocating voting machines, when people whose religious beliefs are different from those of the religious right are compelled to fit in, when “a handful of corporate CEOs … loot the companies they lead and leave employees, pensioners, shareholders, and the rest of us holding the bag,” when the federal government runs up a massive debt to be saddled by our children and grandchildren, when “some politicians who sought three deferments during an earlier war question the patriotism of those of us who served three tours of duty there or left three limbs on the battlefield of that war,” and when “we call on other nations to abide by the Geneva Conventions in providing humane treatment of the war prisoners they hold while we do not.”
The idols in the Bible were presented as objects of scorn because they were often used by immoral leaders to magnify their power at the expense of the people. I will honor the flag this week, but only because I honor this nation’s core principles of liberty and justice even more. Idols, on the other hand, are to be tossed in the fire.