By Donella Meadows
–July 20, 1995–
Dear, dear veterans,
I can imagine your fury when someone purposefully insults the flag. I feel some of that fury too, though I never saluted the flag in my country’s uniform, never followed it into the havoc of battle, never saw it draped over the coffin of a fallen friend. The flag to you stands for bravery, service, loyalty, home, family, everything you love. Of course you feel outraged when some punk burns it or stomps on it or sews it to the seat of his pants. That’s why the punk is doing it — to make you mad.
There are constructive things to do with your anger, including the vigorous education of punks about the sacrifices some people have made for a country where one can be free to insult flags. The least constructive thing to do — actually a terribly destructive thing — is to change the Constitution to ban flag-desecration. That’s changing the Bill of Rights, the most precious part of our democratic heritage, the guarantee that the government can never tell us what we can or cannot say or think — or do to a symbol.
That’s what the flag is, remember. It’s not the nation. It’s a symbol of the nation. Your fought for the nation, the Bill of Rights, freedom. Not a piece of cloth.
In fact I’m surprised that you would demean your own sacrifice by claiming that you fought for a flag. You served something so much larger than that — one of the few countries of the world where no one is forced to make demonstrations of patriotism, where we are even free to express utter contempt for our government. The kind of country you fought against — whether it was imperial Japan or Nazi Germany or North Korea or North Vietnam or any outcrop of Soviet Russia — was the kind that would throw people in jail for desecrating a flag.
It’s hard to stop and think, when you’re honestly, righteously angry. That’s why angry times are the wrong times to make important decisions about basic freedoms. So let’s calm down and talk about this issue using not just our gut reactions, but our heads.
First of all, is flag-burning a problem? One so awful that it requires changing the Constitution? When was the last time you actually saw someone desecrating the flag? Or are you reacting to the same three incidents played over and over on TV? They say there have been only 45 recorded instances of flag desecration in recent years, out of the whole 260 million of us.
So why is everyone so upset? I think it’s because a few pandering politicians keep rubbing our noses in those 45 instances, bringing them up again and again, ranting about them. It’s their way of showing us what great patriots they are, what zealous defenders of freedom.
Think about that a minute. Defenders of freedom! Ready to carve up the Bill of Rights, to move the line between government power and individual freedom a long way toward government power, over a problem that hardly exists! Let’s recognize those political blowhards as the cheap manipulators they are. Let’s vow together, whatever our ideological leanings, to distinguish clearly between those who brandish the symbols of freedom and those who stick up for real freedom.
Now about the punks. When they mess with the flag, they’re saying, in a crude way, that they’re mad at the government. Well, if I understand you rightly, you’re mad at the government too. So am I. We have plenty of reasons to be mad. They’re still pouring our money down ratholes there in Washington; they’re still dealing out billions to their buddies and campaign financers; the place is as corrupt as ever, maybe more so. Now they’re being mean to poor folks as well.
You may or may not care about poor folks. Your politics may not be the same as mine, or the same as the punks’. But you know that corruption hurts us all. It not only wastes our money, it destroys our democracy more than all the burned flags in the world could do. It says you don’t count unless you’re rich enough to buy a politician. Whether you lean right or left, I guess you’d agree that democracy means one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. Maybe, with your maturity won in battle, you can sit down with the flag-burners, find out what’s eating them, and work out how you and they and I together can reclaim our democracy by doing something far more effective than burning flags.
We are too eager to infuriate each other in this country by degrading each other’s sacred symbols. People scratch swastikas over Stars of David, or put a cross in a vat of urine, or burn crosses or flags. Those are all sickening acts. But nothing is gained by responding to anger with more anger. That just lets corrupt politicians make hay, while we bash each other over symbols.
Let’s recognize that in the very act of desecrating the flag, a demonstrator is validating your service, practicing the freedom of speech and freedom of dissent you fought for. Let’s feel our fury and use its force to protect not the flag, but the republic for which it stands. Otherwise we’re likely to end up with all the symbols of freedom, and no freedom.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995