Fire in the mind

The political concept of "the silly season" is darned near universal, though where it falls in the calendar varies across cultures. In Britain, it marks that period when Parliament is in recess and the news-starved press goes berserk with trivia. Here in the colonies, the season was traditionally understood to begin with the presidential primaries - but maybe that changed with 9/11. As the Decider-in-Chief never tires of reminding us, 9/11 changed everything. We live in an age of always-on politics, and so it's all silly, all the time. The danger, of course, is when important matters - like the Constitution of the United States - become targets for trivial thinking.

Cue the proposed flag burning amendment, aka the "Torch the First Amendment" amendment. Unlike the recent attempt to embed unvarnished gay-hating prejudice into our dear old document, the flag fetish referendum stands a very good chance of passing this time around. The most interesting take on the perennial impulse to shout "Fire!" in a crowded politic comes from novelist John Scalzi at Whatever. Eight years ago - hard to believe this silliness has been going this long - Scalzi took a hard look at the burning hole in the center of the flag protection argument: the inefficacy of compulsory reverence. Fetishizing a symbol won't keep people from protesting by destroying a substitute very much like that symbol - and yet that substitute would still be protected by whatever rights to free speech we still have lying around. The effect is still the same, and an amendment is futile.

Last year, Scalzi decided that visual aids were needed, and added the clarifying concept of the VFW test. Take a flag-like object, one identical to Old Glory except that it has dots instead of stars, say, or perhaps has an image of the Hamburgler embedded in the corner, and set it aflame at your local VFW hall. The ass-kicking that would inevitably ensue demonstrates that the symbolism of the flag, and of flag burning, would still be obvious to all in spite of the fact that burning something that's merely flag-like is still protected expression.

So where does it stop, this fetishizing? Where can it stop? How many constitutional amendments are required to kill an idea?

All that the Senate will accomplish in passing a flag burning amendment is to create an burgeoning market for constitutionally-protected protest "flags." It certainly won't put an end to protest itself. Symbols - their meaning, their power, the values they represent - exist only in the mind. Just try putting a fire out there.

Like I said: it's silly.

(Run it up the cross-post and see who salutes...)

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