U.S. Flag Can Be Mended,
but the Constitution Cannot
June 30, 2006
A flag is a very powerful symbol. It represents who we are and what we stand for. On Sept. 11, like many Americans, one of my first reactions was to hoist the flag as a way of saying to besieged New York and Washington and to the world that we are one as Americans. Five years later, however, the Republicans are using the flag as a tool of division with this week’s vote on a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning despite the fact that there have been only nine such events since Sept. 11.
The Republicans hope to position themselves as the only true patriots by defending a piece of cloth from desecration while they repeatedly desecrate all that the flag represents by attempting to criminalize dissent and promote indefinite detentions, torture and warrantless surveillance. Of course, these are the same Republicans who claim to support our troops, while cutting their benefits and funding for the VA; and who also claim to represent middle-American values while protecting overseas tax loopholes that enable corporations to avoid paying billions in taxes each year.
Interestingly, many of the self-appointed defenders of the flag are also defenders of another flag which flew in battle against Old Glory — the Southern Cross, more commonly known as the Confederate battle flag. When the Southern Cross was placed on a white background as part of the new Confederate flag its meaning was clear, as The Savannah Morning News proclaimed that it would “be hailed by the civilized world (as a) white man’s flag” and as symbol of “our higher cause, the cause of a superior race.”
This flag was carried into battle on behalf of a government whose cornerstone, in the words of Confederate Vice President Stephens, “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” After the war, all southern states except for Mississippi abandoned use of the Southern Cross until 1954 when the Supreme Court delivered a fatal blow to segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education and the “white man’s flag” was resurrected as a symbol of southern defiance. In Georgia, for example, the leader of the effort to add the Southern Cross to the state flag has since conceded it was intended to demonstrate defiance of the Brown ruling. Similarly, Alabama Governor George Wallace first flew the Southern Cross over the statehouse in 1963 to protest a visit by his nemesis U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Trent Lott, Ann Coulter and other defenders of the Southern Cross are quick to argue that the flag “represents value(s) — virtues — that exist independently of the institution of slavery.” Senator Lott’s recent praise for the 1948 Dixiecrat segregationist campaign and Ms. Coulter’s statements calling for the repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation and nostalgia for “when our enemies were white,” however, suggests that
these values are not American values.
The defenders of the Southern Cross simply ignore the fact that the flag has principally been embraced by those who wish to defy or subvert the Constitution, rather than protect and defend it.When this flag was reintroduced to state capitols, it had a clear meaning to its people — it was a “white man’s flag” that was and remains a symbol of slavery and defiance of the Federal government.
It should be beyond debate that no person or state that claims to uphold the principles of the Constitution should embrace the Southern Cross as a symbol of pride and its display should elicit the same disgust as flag desecration. The Republicans’ continued defense and exploitation of the “white man’s flag” only demonstrates that this week’s push for a flag burning amendment has everything to do with distracting voters from the Republicans’ sorry record and nothing to do with patriotism or defending our flag.
Defending our flag means remembering that our founding fathers intended to permit the free expression of views regardless of whether these views were compelling or ignorant, inspiring or contemptible. This is the discomfort of democracy which our founders asked us to bear and, in doing so, we demonstrate to the world that the liberty they fought for is alive and well.
It is scary that the Republicans came within one vote of narrowing the Bill of Rights for the first time in our history. Had they prevailed one can only wonder what rights they would restrict to win future elections. Fortunately, enough members of Congress had the courage and sense to recognize that a desecrated flag can be easily replaced, but a desecrated Constitution cannot.
Post Script: The article triggered a furious response from a white supremacist group. You can read the exchanges here.