The House's approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to protect the American flag against burning or other desecration proves that the House majority:
(a) Opposes the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
(b) Is made up of conservative (and inconsistent) demagogues who will do whatever it takes to play to the ignorant prejudices of the masses.
(c) Cares deeply about America and worries that patriotism is on the wane.
(d) Is incapable of understanding the distinction between a symbol and the thing itself.
A good case could be made for any of these choices, and probably all are true for some of the 305 members who voted on Thursday in support of the amendment designed to overturn a 1989 Supreme Court decision.
But there may be another explanation: We love the notion that we live in a free society that permits all citizens to freely support the ideals we extol. But we eventually get tired of their refusal to see things our way, and we look for ways to force them into line.
Nor is this temptation to coercion the special preserve of conservatives, though it often appears that way. After all, it is conservatives who are leading the fight against flag desecration, just as conservatives have led the fights to force pregnant women to term and to subject schoolchildren to the influence of Christianity.
But liberals are, when persuasion fails, no less given to using the power of the government to make people behave "correctly." Thus they back union-shop arrangements that require support of labor unions, work to make it difficult for you to own a gun (because they think you shouldn't) and create a special category of offenses called "hate crimes" to sanction not just wrong actions but wrong thoughts.
A. Lawrence Chickering ("Beyond Left and Right; Breaking the Political Stalemate") has looked at the phenomenon and concluded that the major political warfare today is not between liberals and conservatives but between the "freedom" and "order" impulses of both camps. "Freedom" liberals produced the free-speech movement of the 1960s; "order" liberals produced the political-correctness era of the '90s. "Freedom" conservatives of an earlier time valued independent thinking, privacy and rugged individualism. "Order" conservatives would make you honor God, country and the flag.
Ah, yes, the flag. The House vote (widely expected to be negated by the Senate) was, at least in part, a cry for order. The idea of unpatriotic young punks spitting on, purposefully showing disrespect for and even burning Old Glory is hard to swallow. The flag is, after all, the symbol of the country, and its deliberate desecration is a calculated insult to country. It's like saying, "The hell with America." But my guess is that few of those who voted for the flag-protection amendment would support a law that would put you in jail for uttering the actual words. It's a little strange -- at least inconsistent -- that many of the same people who argue that limits on campaign contributions amount to a limit on political "speech" cannot bring themselves to think of flag-burning as speech worthy of First Amendment protection.
"The American flag is not just a piece of cloth," said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.). "It is a symbol that reflects the values, the struggles and the storied history of our great country."
Lovely sentiments, but I wouldn't want to have to enforce their codification. What, after all, is "the American flag"? Is it a particular item reposing under glass in the nation's capital -- or any unofficial reproduction of it? Would I be in violation of the proposed amendment if I drew a picture of the Stars and Stripes, crayoned in the approximately right colors -- and then tossed it into the fireplace? Would I be jailed or fined for sewing together a device with, say, 47 stars and 14 stripes and burning it at a political rally?
Still I understand the impulse behind the legislation. I too am sick of people who think only of their rights as U.S. citizens -- and not of their responsibilities. I'm dismayed by those too ignorant to know what a special place America is, and I'm disgusted by people who will desecrate sacred symbols just for effect.
I too would like a bit more order in our political life. But not at the expense of the freedom that has made the American flag such a precious emblem in the first place.