Why are you a Democrat, again?

Dianne Feinstein can kiss my flag-buffed butt.

(No, it’s true! I use flags for toilet paper! Not just paper ones, either. I scour antiques stores for cotton and silk flags, preferably ones flown either in battle or from the porches of elderly widows.)

The proposed flag amendment, which in its entirety reads, “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States,” was a bipartisan measure. Its chief sponsor was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the chief co-sponsor was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is running for re-election in November.

“Bipartisan” on a technical level, sure. “Bipartisan” in spirit, not a bit of it. This is not an issue of bipartisan national importance–hell, it’s not important at all. It’s not an issue on which reasonable people may reasonably agree, like campaign finance reform or sex trafficking. It’s not an issue on which everyone in politics should have an opinion, like deficit spending or the estate tax. It’s not a pressing concern, like the Iraq war exit strategy. It’s not an issue which the wingnuts have, for better or worse, forced into the public arena such that politicians may not dismiss it as the manipulative prairie muffin it is. It’s not even an issue America knew about last week.

This is political jingoism. This is a transparent ploy on the part of the Republican party to divert attention from the President’s poll numbers, which are holding steady at “extremely low.” This is designed to keep Republicans in place during the midterm elections. A concussed mealworm would recognize this for the shameless grandstanding it is. A politician with approximately forty years of political experience, fourteen of those in the senate, should know better. Even apart from the free-speech issue, Dianne Feinstein’s support for this amendment should be cause for her to hang her head in shame.

Feinstein, who flies the U.S. flag over her San Francisco and Washington homes, has been an outspoken advocate of a flag desecration amendment since the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in two 5-4 votes in 1989 and 1990, found that federal and state laws banning flag burning and other acts of desecration were unconstitutional infringements of free speech.

On the Senate floor, the 73-year-old Feinstein recalled how, as a young girl, she was inspired when she picked up the Feb. 24, 1945, edition of The Chronicle and saw photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

With a blow-up of the Rosenthal photo next to her, she described it as a wartime “bolt of electricity” that left her with an abiding feeling that the flag was more than a symbol.

Quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White, she said, “The flag is itself a monument, subject to civil protection.”

“Freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our great nation,” she said. “But any thought expressed in the burning of the flag can be expressed equally well in another manner.”

So when you saw this representation of a flag being planted on a famous battleground, you were overcome with emotion connected to the events that representation depicted? That sounds kinda symbolic to me.

Everyone agrees that the flag is a symbol: it is important to us because it means something. The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. Brand America. It’s not an actual country or nation. It’s not an actual group of people. It holds no actual political power. Destroying any flag or every flag would not void any American law, or take away the rights of any citizen, or liberate citizenship from its current restrictions, or compromise our borders, or wipe our history out of existence, or saddle us with a new past. It wouldn’t make Americans forget their upbringing, or uproot them from their homes, or alienate them from the complex web of affinity that constitutes national and geographic identity. It wouldn’t make our military engagements any less deadly. It wouldn’t shift our reputation in either direction. It wouldn’t suspend a single one of the modern diplomatic and coalition obligations we’ve adopted for ourselves. It wouldn’t weaken the dollar or poison our GNP. It’s a symbol, a sign, a gesture. A powerful symbol is still a symbol.

That’s why it is not true that any statement made in reference to the flag would work as well, would be as powerful, if it used inferior materials. That power is unique to that symbol; Feinstein agrees with this in fact, or she would not be seeking special protection for this symbol and this symbol alone.

That is also why we cannot pretend that this symbol is not really a symbol, or that the people making symbolic statements with it or upon it are not engaging in speech. There is nothing special about these statements that removes them from the category of protected speech. They are not extra-dissenting. They are not extra-offensive. They are not extra-iconoclastic. (More on that later.) They are working with a set of meanings that we have attached to this piece of cloth, a group of concepts that must be scrutinized like all the others precisely because some people forget their fallibility. The flag is not more precious than the Constitution or the Bill of Rights–neither of those things have been protected from vituperative criticism, and some of their most ungrateful detractors are behind the anti-flag-burning Amendment.

I was talking to my Dad about this yesterday, and he made the excellent point that “desecration” is religious language. When writing this post, I’ve had to constantly edit out other religious terms: sacred, sacrilege, and blasphemy, for example. It’s an incredibly vague term from a legal standpoint, in part because the laws of this country try not to recognize those distinctions. The importance of a symbol, or its popularity, or its connection to the government, are not supposed to matter.

It’s vague from an artistic standpoint as well. Did Jasper Johns desecrate the flag? Does this use qualify? What if you slide rainbows in between the bars, or cover up the stars with hemp leaves or peace signs? What about this picture? What about this one? Or this one?

It’s an unseasonably cold day in Ogden, Iowa, outside the funeral of Daniel Sesker. Shirley Phelps-Roper has an American flag tucked in the waistband of her sweatpants, dragging it on the asphalt as she walks. Westboro’s emissaries pose for snapshots like they’re at a scenic lookout.

Or this one?

What if you’re using the flag to protest American crimes? What if you might be using it to express a sense of alienation from America, or hatred for America? What about this?

At the end of the nineteenth century, many Native Americans from many different tribes used flag imagery as a design element in their art, clothing, and crafts. While some of these objects were produced for sale or exchange with European Americans (the tourist trade was a growing component of many tribal economies), there is compelling evidence that many of these artifacts were used, worn, and treasured by Native Americans themselves. Not always literal or exact representations, Native American flag images often modify or abstract the pattern of the American flag, enlarging or shrinking the blue field, omitting stripes, or substituting other shapes for stars. But however the image is refashioned and transformed in Native American art, it is nonetheless recognizable as the American flag. These representations are a testament to the creativity and inventiveness of the Native American artisans who appropriated this symbol of European American power and dominance and adapted it to their own complex and diverse uses.

Native Americans also adopted the flag on occasion as an expedient way to make their traditional practices seem less threatening to Reservation authorities. When U.S. authorities banned the Lakota summer Sun Dance ceremony because they saw it as pagan and subversive, the Lakota adapted parts of the ceremony into a sanctioned Fourth of July celebration. Because the traditional sacred colors of the Sun Dance are red and blue, the insertion of American flag imagery did not disrupt the spiritual significance of the ceremony. Native American art also frequently introduces traditional sacred symbols into the representation of the flag pattern itself. Substituting the usual five-pointed stars with four-armed Morning Stars and crosses, Native American artisans transformed the flag into a representation of their own religious and cultural traditions. The varied examples of flag imagery in Native American art point out the multivalence of this symbol. For some artists, the representation of the American flag may have been a means to signify assimilation with the dominant culture, while for others, redesigned images of the flag probably served as a means of proclaiming their cultural independence. This exhibit explores different types of American flag imagery used in Native American art.

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23 Responses to Why are you a Democrat, again?

  1. ScottM says:

    I’m not sure I agree with you piny. In general, she’s a pretty good Senator and I can understand having one or two hangups. In some ways, this is like a reverse version of many Republican’s “one pet cause” that they use to claim compassion while voting with the majority to slash funding for important programs the rest of the time.

  2. piny says:

    I’m not sure I agree with you piny. In general, she’s a pretty good Senator and I can understand having one or two hangups. In some ways, this is like a reverse version of many Republican’s “one pet cause” that they use to claim compassion while voting with the majority to slash funding for important programs the rest of the time.

    She also supported extending the PATRIOT Act; I don’t think her relationship to civil rights is so idiosyncratic as that.

  3. piny says:

    Also, this is not a pet issue. A flag-burning amendment would create an enormous chilling effect on artistic speech. This is a very potent, very popular symbol. I doubt very much that anyone’s gonna have a standard working definition of what is and is not desecration. The imagination gap between legislators and artists is a given. There’s also the little problem of enshrining censorship in the Constitution–that doesn’t bode well for the protection of speech in general, particularly dissenting speech.

  4. raging red says:

    The idea of amending the Constitution to limit people’s rights is completely antithetical to the original purpose of having a Bill of Rights to begin with, and I find it abhorrent. (See also, anti-gay marriage amendment.) The Bill of Rights was passed to make sure certain fundamental rights were preserved, so that the Constitution could not be read as allowing the government to infringe on those rights. (Originally interpreted to apply only to the federal government, then to the state governments after the 14th Amendment was passed.) Amendments should be used to protect and preserve people’s rights from government infringement, not to limit rights. The only time it’s been used to limit rights is when the 18th Amendment was passed, and we all know how that turned out.

  5. raging red says:

    Okay, as soon as I hit submit, I knew I shouldn’t have written “the only time…” without thinking for a little bit longer. The 11th Amendment limits the right of citizens to sue states.

  6. Thomas says:

    Piny, she’s bad and always has been a nervous, spineless triangulator. I’ve always hated Lieberman, too (since he ran against Weicker, whom I loved) and now my home state is taking out its trash. If the Democratic Party cannot stand for anything, it is of little use. Movement conservatives started changing the Republican party and moving the American political discourse to the right in the 1940s. They didn’t run a candidate until 1964, didn’t get a President elected until 1980, and didn’t get real power until 1994. Reversing that process will be no faster or easier.

    Folks, I have a family. It’s not a question of whether I have that kind of time or patience. Quitting is not an option.

  7. Hugo says:

    Feinstein has never, ever, been a liberal. Too many people outside California think of her and Barbara Boxer as being somehow similar; BB is as progressive a Senator as we’ve got. Both are Jewish women from the Bay Area — but Boxer came up through grass-roots activism and Feinstein bought her way in to politics and only ended up being a success after the man who beat her for the mayoralty of San Francisco was murdered.

    Feinstein, time and again, has revealed that she is the Left Coast’s Lieberman. I voted for her in 1992 and 1994, but voted for her Green opponent in ’00 and will vote for the Green again this time. Boxer, yay; Feinstein, boo.

  8. Casey says:

    I cannot respect anyone who holds more passion for a piece of fabric than the actual people that piece of fabric represents.

  9. zuzu says:

    This flag you’re reminiscing about isn’t even an actual flag. It’s a bronze sculpture of a flag used to portray an actual flag that you’ve never seen.

    Actually, the sculpture flies a real flag, just not the one that flew over Mt. Suribachi (the Marines are bronze). She would have seen the one in the photograph (1945) long before the USMC Memorial was erected in 1951.

    Not, of course, that it matters. Democrats should stand up for free-speech issues, and this is a big one. It’s also one that’s completely, utterly unnecessary — who’s running around burning flags, for Pete’s sake, except to protest these perennial silly attempts to outlaw the nonexistent problem of flag burning?

    I fail to see why an incumbent Senator from San Francisco, of all places, should flip out over flag burning as an issue. It’s not like it’s going to cost her votes to vote against it just on the principle of the thing.

  10. piny says:

    Actually, the sculpture flies a real flag, just not the one that flew over Mt. Suribachi (the Marines are bronze). She would have seen the one in the photograph (1945) long before the USMC Memorial was erected in 1951.

    Oops. Thanks for the correction.

    Not, of course, that it matters. Democrats should stand up for free-speech issues, and this is a big one. It’s also one that’s completely, utterly unnecessary — who’s running around burning flags, for Pete’s sake, except to protest these perennial silly attempts to outlaw the nonexistent problem of flag burning?

    Exactly. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to burn a flag before I heard about this, but now I really want to.

  11. SingOut says:

    Wow – great post, Piny.

  12. ks says:

    PIny, I had the same reaction as you. As soon as I heard about this, my first thought was to go out and buy a couple of flags to burn on the 4th, just for spite. I swear, most of the elected representatives in this country are idiots.

  13. ALL OF US immediately wanted to wipe our butts with the flag, just as soon as we heard about the amendment. Thank GOD it didn’t pass, now we don’t have to.

    MY husband brought up an interesting point: what if you made a flag, exactly LIKE the American Flag, but it has fifty-one stars. Could you then burn it (or wipe with it) all you wanted? (I mean if this amendment HAD passed?)

    Another interesting point: burning is THE Legal way to dispose of Old Flags. Burning is supposed to be honorable, like a Viking Funeral.

  14. kate says:

    Just something I read in that piece that our friendly patriarch Orrin Hatch said that caused me some momentary cognitive dissidence,

    “… it was about Congress taking back its right to control the Constitution from unelected Supreme Court members and restoring the pre-1989 situation. “All we want to do is restore power back to the Congress,” he said.

    He says this while the white house is running rip shod over congress and attempting at every minute to strip congressional oversight of the executive branch. So is the Republican plan to make an Imperial White House and have congress available only to brow beat and control the judicial branch — which would be elected as well?

    Easy job I guess once you get over the hurdle of all those democrats meddlin’ in the White House’s business, then control the public, control the judicial, control congress.

    Well, at least passing a flag burning amendment wouldn’t be so damn hard.

  15. little light says:

    Another interesting point: burning is THE Legal way to dispose of Old Flags. Burning is supposed to be honorable, like a Viking Funeral.

    You know, that’s what a lot of people miss, I think. Within the bounds of the Flag Code, flag-burning can be a powerful, legal, respectful form of protest: one that says, symbolically, that the flag in question is too stained and tattered to be hung with honor, and needs to be renewed.

  16. Chris Clarke says:

    I fail to see why an incumbent Senator from San Francisco, of all places, should flip out over flag burning as an issue. It’s not like it’s going to cost her votes to vote against it just on the principle of the thing.

    Well she’s from San Francisco, but she’s gotta run statewide, and once you get more than about 75 miles from the ocean California turns deep, deep red.

    Which is not an excuse, of course. Feinstein sucks.

  17. DAS says:

    Regarding Feinstein:

    I remember in the post-9/11 hysteria she was one of the people leading the charge to further regulate student visas on the argument that some fraction of the 9/11 hijackers had student visas. So I did the statistics and the proportion of hijackers who had student visas was actually smaller than the proportion of visa holders in general who had student visas (although not significantly so). I e-mailed this finding to Feinstein, but since I am not a constituent of hers, I guess she felt free to ignore the statistics presented to her.

    Feinstein also presents us with an object lesson as to how the Dems. do not pick up any swing voters by moving toward the “center”. She’s always trying to sound “tough” and “serious” and “centrist” but does it help her politically? Well, it can’t hurt her too badly, she’s still in office … but I can tell you, as an ex-Californian with many friends, across the political spectrum who still live in the state, the more politically liberal Boxer actually has a lot broader range of support from people of all political stripes than Feinstein does. Centrists and even some conservatives may disagree with liberal Democrats on certain issues but would rather vote for someone with convictions, even those with which they disagree, than for someone who is a pandering triangulator. Indeed, many centrists are more socially liberal than they realize, but they still might vote for conservatives with whom they disagree more than liberals with whom they agree and cite social issues as the reason for their vote — what does this mean? That they are looking for “moral conviction” rather than any specifics of what that conviction is. We Dems. would do well then to embrace our ideology rather than run away from it as certain Dems are wont to do.

  18. DAS says:

    Well she’s from San Francisco, but she’s gotta run statewide, and once you get more than about 75 miles from the ocean California turns deep, deep red.

    Which is not an excuse, of course. Feinstein sucks. – Chris Clarke

    Sometimes you don’t have to go even that far: I know the drill, I’m from the OC. But, see my last post, does Feinstein’s “moderation” help her with those deep red folks? My experience is that it does not.

  19. Julie says:

    I didn’t know that about California and now I want to crawl into a hole. I know NY is that way… the further in state you get (I live in rural central NY and it’s about as red as you can get) the less liberal it is, but I always associated California with liberalness. (Is that even a word?) I guess you learn something new everyday.
    The flag burning amendment has never made sense to me. It’s one of those things that I personally feel no desire to ever do… besides which my grandfather would roll in his grave if I did, but I really don’t care if someone else wants to. I don’t see the issue here… it’s a piece of fabric. Yes, an important symbol, but nothing more than a piece of fabric. If you burn one, there are 8 million more out there. I think there are times when it’s very inappropriate (think outside of a military funeral or something) but like zuzu said, this is almost non-existant. When was the last time you heard of a flag being burned? I am 25 and have yet to read about a protest involving the burning of the flag.

  20. Rachel says:

    Joe Lieberman of the West Coast – that’s spot on. She’s also terrible on disability rights issues. Can we PLEASE get a decent candidate to unseat the woman, please?

  21. zuzu says:

    When was the last time you heard of a flag being burned? I am 25 and have yet to read about a protest involving the burning of the flag.

    Vietnam, really. There’s still the dirty-hippie thing, and so many conservatives haven’t let go of the 60s that Dems like Feinstein just follow along with them.

  22. Maia says:

    “Is it agains the law to cut up the flag?”

    “Not if you sew it back together.”

    (yes, the only useful thing I have to add for this discussion is a quote from a movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, but it’s a really good movie).

    Actually that’s not true; I’ll also hate Diane Feinstein, even though everything I know about her comes from reading And the Band Played On.

  23. CarrieCann says:

    As others have noted, she’s in San Francisco, so she “runs” as a Democrat, but she’s as Republican as Lieberman. Follow the money trail to her husband …

    I’m voting for the Republican that runs against her this year. It’s sad that the Democratic party can’t muster anything of value to run against her, she’s so “placed” (again, follow the husband’s money trail) that she can’t be beat at this time.

    If Sheehan would have actually gone up against her, as was her initial intention, THAT might have given Ms. Diane something to seethe over (and something to rally the disaffected dems in CA) but, alas, that was smothered by a direct DNCC hit!

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