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Is This the Best Argument You Can Muster?
2006.08.09 (Wed) 23:44
You may recall, not that long ago, that the most recent push to criminalize "flag desecration" was voted down in the Senate by one vote. At the time of the vote, we were calling and writing to our senators since we correctly anticipated a close vote (we must be psychic). Based on past voting records, we were reasonably sure of how our senators would vote, and the one that seemed likely to support this asinine measure was newly-senatorized Bob Menendez.
Menendez had been a New Jersey congressman in the House of Representatives (the US version of a Monty Pythonesque House of Lords, if you ask us), and had been bumped up to the big table when former senator Corzine was elected Governor of New Jersey. In the past, as a member of the House, Menendez had voted for legislation similar to the Constitutional Amendment banning flag desecration, so it was clear that he was the weak link in the senatorial armor for our state. As such, we spent some time explaining to his office (in professional terms, and without any "bad words") why celebrating freedom by restricting freedom was contrary to the principles on which our nation was founded.
Not surprisingly, it didn't work, and Menendez voted...poorly. A few weeks later, a letter came from his office explaining his support for the amendment. It was so incredibly poorly reasoned that we wanted to share it here. If these are the best reasons that a Senator and his staff can come up with for supporting such an idiotic measure, then we have to question the intelligence of Senator Menendez. A scanned copy of the letter is attached here in PDF form, and the two main arguments are reprinted below.
First, Senator, we'll respond to your emotional appeal:
My parents came to this country from Cuba to secure a better life for themselves and for their children. To them, and to me, the flag serves as a tangible reminder of the freedom that they lost in their homeland and found in America. The flag of the United States of America is unique among all the symbols of this great nation. No other symbol of our country is so universally recognized or beloved by its people. I believe that it is a sacred symbol and one that transcends politics and personality.
Well, Bob, why is it that you think they came to America: for the flag itself, or for the freedom that the flag represents? We don't even know your parents, and we're pretty sure we know the answer, senator. You want to honor American freedom by stripping away some of the freedom that your parents held so dear. And what would the penalty be for flag desecration? A fine? Imprisonment? Death? No matter which is chosen, the message is clear: supporters of this legislation are in favor of stripping life, liberty or property away from those who don't appropriately coddle a piece of cloth. Which is more antithetical to the freedom your parents struggled to achieve: burning a flag, or imprisoning someone for doing so?
Further, we cringe at the implication that the flag is "sacred." Here's what Merriam-Webster tells us about that word:
1 a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity [a tree sacred to the gods] b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) [a fund sacred to charity]
2 a : worthy of religious veneration : HOLY b : entitled to reverence and respect
3 : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane [sacred music]
4 archaic : ACCURSED
5 a : UNASSAILABLE, INVIOLABLE b : highly valued and important [a sacred responsibility]
All in all, we don't find that connotation at all agreeable or palatable. Do you want to know what we think is sacred? The freedoms that the flag represents. Like freedom of expression, for example. You know...just to choose something at random.
Now, your second argument:
While I am a strong supporter of the first amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression, there are several restrictions and limits on speech already. We have laws against slander, libel, pornography and inflammatory statements posing a threat to public safety, just to name a few. It is for these reasons that I voted in favor of an amendment to protect the flag.
We agree that free speech is not absolute. But let's look at the restrictions that you mention. For a moment, let's set aside pornography (sheesh) and look at the others. Here's the list of actions that you believe should not be protected under the first amendment:
- Inflammatory statements posing a threat to public safety (i.e.: yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theatre)
- Burning a flag
Sing along with us, Senator:
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
Did you guess which thing was not like the others? With one exception, each of these items represent actions that directly infringe on the rights of other people. As such, we wholeheartedly agree with these restrictions. In fact, we recently wrote about another instance in which certain forms of speech should be restricted for the same reason — see our post called "Free Speech or Fraud?" Do you see what's different about a law against flag desecration? That's right, Senator — flag desecration in no way infringes on the rights of other people. As such, it shouldn't be criminalized. In point of fact, we think that you do understand the difference here. Note that, in your list of unprotected actions, you include "inflammatory statements posing a threat to public safety." Why include that last part? Why the distinction between inflammatory statements in general and inflammatory statements that pose a threat to public safety? It sounds to us like you damn well do understand that the restriction of free expression should be limited to when that expression infringes on the rights of others.
Regarding pornography, we should have laws protecting children from participating in or viewing pornography, and protecting unwilling participants in general. Otherwise, adults should be free to do whatever they like in their own homes (or in those little locked booths in the city with the sticky floors). This is just one more example of free expression that is unduly restricted.
So let's sum up: because free speech is not absolute, and because your parents came from Cuba in order to find freedom, you voted in favor of restricting a form a free expression that harms no one? Senator, that's simply idiotic. And let's be clear: it isn't the fact that you disagree with us that has prompted us to label your stance as idiotic, it's the way that you've come to your conclusions. If there was one iota of rational thought present — if you were able to muster a single semi-persuasive argument — we might feel differently. You proactively sent out your stance to those who contacted you, and this is the best argument you can put forth to justify an amendment to the United States Constitution — a document which has traditionally been used to safeguard freedom — which would restrict the rights of all citizens? That's pathetic.
Here's the problem, and one that Senator Menendez is likely aware of. Even though Senator Menendez has failed Civics 101, we can't simply refuse to vote for him. In today's political landscape, including the wonderfully harmful two party system, the choices are nearly always between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. And though Menendez may have shown us that he is, in fact, a giant douche, the Republican turd sandwich that he ends up running against will likely prove to be even less palatable than he is. As a result, we may very well end up voting for this mental midget come November, just by the process of elimination. Lovely, isn't it?
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[ Filed under: % Civil Liberties % Government & Politics ]
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Jason Spicer, 2006.08.13 (Sun) 18:43 [Link] »
Åsmund Skjæveland, 2006.08.30 (Wed) 11:39 [Link] »
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