For those Americans who had the very mistaken impression that censorship was solely promoted by “politically correct” leftists, reality struck again last week. On November 29, Trump took to Twitter to declare that, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” There is one bit of irony that to my knowledge nobody has remarked on here: November 29 marked the 205th birthday of abolitionist and anti-racism activist, Wendell Phillips. Phillips despised the Constitution because it restricted freedom vis a vis its support for slavery. Trump, by contrast, despises the Constitution because he thinks it grants people too much freedom. This is not the first time Trump has taken this position. In September of last year, he stated of flag burning, “Personally, I don’t think it should be legal.” But eight months before that, he had stated that he considered it free expression. I personally felt that his earlier statement in support of a flag burning ban should have been a warning that he likely had totalitarian tendencies. Unfortunately, what had happened was that after having flag burning be illegal for many years prior to the Supreme Court intervening in 1989, followed by scores of Republicans and all too many Democrats trying to re-ban it, Trump’s stance did not seem like a red flag to a lot of people.
Why should flag burning be permitted, even if we find it distasteful? Firstly, it is a form of free expression. Yes, it is not literal spoken speech. But it is an expression of protest against the government, and as such, it deserves just as much freedom from censorship as literal speech does. Do conservatives really want to live in a country where only spoken or written words are free from censorship? Under the logic that they use to argue for banning flag burning, the government would also have the authority to ban individuals from displaying the Confederate Flag on their car, drawing cartoons of President Obama, selling religious artwork, including a rattlesnake on “Don’t Tread on Me” posters, wearing crosses, or even flying the American Flag itself. Furthermore, I believe that out of all the efforts at censorship, calls to ban flag desecration are among the most dangerous. This is because these efforts involve attempting to directly censor a form of protest against the government and outright ban it from any public forum. From there, the country would be one step away from a Police State.
I certainly respect people, especially veterans and their friends and family, who feel that flag desecration is extremely disrespectful to the men and women who have fought and died for this country and that this therefore justifies banning it. However, putting aside the question of whether or not flag burning is actually an attack on soldiers and veterans as opposed to just the government, the fact that a form of expression elicits pain in many people is not just cause to ban it. Freedom of expression extends to forms of expression that are hurtful, disrespectful, and even reprehensible. And quite frankly, I find it rather hypocritical for conservatives to say that women, LGBT people, and racial minorities must “suck it up” and respect the free speech of people who engage in bigoted or hateful forms of expression, while people who are offended by flag desecration get to write their feelings into law.
While I am likely to be raked across the coals in some quarters for what I am about to say next, the visceral contempt, even hatred that gets directed at people who desecrate the flag leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I do not personally believe in burning the flag. I love America, I think that flag desecration is hurtful to many soldiers and veterans, as well as their friends and families, and often distracts from whatever point the person doing the desecrating was trying to raise. But I think that good people can come to different conclusions on this. And I believe it is extremely condescending for white, heterosexual, cis men such as myself to be lecturing people who have been oppressed or whose ancestors have been oppressed here about how great our country is. Those of us who love America and oppose flag desecration have to empathize with why other people may feel differently based on their personal or family experiences. Similarly, we have to respect that some allies of marginalized groups may feel that the United States’s shortcomings on civil rights justify flag desecration and that, again, this does not make them bad people. Many supporters of same-sex marriage, especially libertarians and conservatives, have called on other gay marriage advocates to be more respectful and tolerant of people who disagree and to stop demonizing them. If a gay person is asked to respect people who believe that they should have less rights because of their sexual orientation, then Americans should sure as Hell respect people who burn a piece of cloth with the government’s logo on it.