April 5, 1990

Our Flag: The Thing and the Symbol

In free countries, every man is entitled to express his opinions -and every other man is entitled not to listen.

G. Norman Collie

It is now a federal crime to burn an American flag. A flag may, however, be cremated when it gets old and tattered.

If someone took a card with your name on it and tore it to bits, saying "That's what I think of you!!" it would send you a message. It would say that the person who did it was angry with you, or didn't like you, or something like that.

How would you react to it? Most of us wouldn't be happy about it, but at the same time, wouldn't feel particularly threatened."That's life," or "tough beans!" is what most of us would say; being philosophic about it, "if he doesn't like me, that's his problem!"

If, on the other hand, that person said that he would kill you, you would have good reason to feel threatened. If he had a gun, it would be much more serious and you would take steps to protect yourself. This is because you regard yourself and your life as being important, while your name written on a card is merely a SYMBOL for you. Ira Pilgrim is what I am called. It is a SYMBOL for ME like the word shoe is a SYMBOL for what I wear on my feet. THE SYMBOL IS NOT THE THING. I can't wear the word "shoe" on my feet, and after I'm dead, the words "Ira Pilgrim" may be around for a while, even though I will have ceased to exist. If you hit or kiss my name, I won't feel it at all. Many a lonesome soldier has kissed the picture of his girl, but she never felt it. It didn't do him much good either.

All very young children and a large number of adults cannot understand what I have just said. They cannot distinguish between a thing and the symbol for it. To them the word "shoe" is the shoe. The word "mommy" is mommy; they are the same. If someone tears up a card with his name on it, it is a true injury. That's why it's so easy to injure a child with words; he thinks that the words are real. We are taught to say "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never harm me." However, no kid really believes that. He believes that words can harm him, because the words are very real to him.

When someone burns a flag he is making the same statement as the person who tears up a card with your name on it. He is saying that he is very angry and that he doesn't like the country that that flag represents; or that he doesn't like what that country is doing. That action, like tearing up the card, is the act of a very angry child.

The word USA or America is also a symbol.There are many different USA's. There's the geographic entity, which is real and tangible. There is also the abstraction USA or America which means different things to different people. If you looked inside the heads of George Bush and Jesse Jackson, you would see images of two countries that are so different that no one would imagine that they were thinking of the same geographic entity.

There are people who died for their country. They did not die for the flag, which is a piece of cloth. To risk one's life for one's home and country makes some sort of sense. To do it for a symbol does not.

If someone said "I hate the United States" it's effect on bystanders would be a lot less than if he burned an American flag. Since both statements are identical, what is the difference? The difference is the way that people react to it. Burning a symbol seems to be a much stronger statement; which is why angry people do it.

Rather than trying to get people to look at things more rationally, what The President and Congress did was to pass a law that essentially says that it is a crime to burn an American flag because it makes some people who see the act angry.

The law has not yet been enforced. If it were, it would almost certainly be found to be unconstitutional, even by our very conservative Supreme Court. The right of free expression is very fundamental to our legal system. Even obscenity, which is offensive to more people than flag burning, is protected by the constitution.

It will be a better world when that right of free expression is respected by all nations. Ours will be a better country if the people who run it also honor it. By passing that law, the members of congress showed, what we all know to be true, that most politicians will do anything for votes. They will even sell our freedom for votes. I believe that if our president thought that it would get him lots of votes, he would even eat broccoli.

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