Flag burning IS free speech — and so is sham patriotism

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Monday, June 16, 1997 was memorable for two reasons. First, my younger son was born that afternoon. The nurse toweled him off, handed him to me. I gazed down and thought — sorry, buddy — “He looks just like Edward G. Robinson.” Truly, there should have been the tiny stump of a cigar hanging off his quivering lip. The other memorable event was that morning, the start of what began as a regular workday. I was having breakfast downtown with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez You’d think the life-changing event later that day would have wiped out memory of what we discussed. But it didn’t. Our exchange stuck with me. Flag burning was in the news. Congressional action pending. I was surprised that Gutiérrez, a Democrat and supposed champion of liberal causes, would not oppose any ban. He explained a Chicago TV station had a video clip of him, talking into a microphone at a forgotten 1970s protest rally where, behind him, somebody set fire to an American flag. If he opposed the latest government attempt to bunch the flag into a ball and jam it down the throats of protesters, that video would be disinterred and aired. Not a profile in courage. It burned into memory, because of the visceral disgust I felt. Really? You’d stand, hands in your pockets, gazing at the sky and whistling while free speech gets mugged in an alley? So you don’t risk looking bad? Thus I can’t stand by while Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) gets beat up for appearing at a rally outside City Hall after a U.S. flag was burned. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (28th() and “quite a few” of his colleagues are considering censuring Sigcho-Lopez. I bet they are. Flag-waving theatrics are the go-to move of Trumpies who think that if they smooch Old Glory long enough, then their betraying every value America represents will be okay. Let’s be crystal clear. Setting flags on fire isn’t the issue. Every VFW hall has a special bin where used American flags are to be deposited, later to be burned, with respect. It’s burning a flag without respect, as a protest — aka free speech — that twists my-way-or-the-highway false patriots into a knot. It’s especially sad to see Taliaferro, a vet, suggest our military fought to protect those who would stifle free speech. Really? That’s the freedom you’re upholding? The freedom to agree with you? I disagree with that rally. Israel has a right to exist. The U.S. is her ally. But I also understand that thousands in Gaza are being slaughtered, that passions are high, and someone might be moved to burn an American flag. How could they not? This is an old tango we’re dancing. Remember Dread Scott? The student whose “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” installation put an American flag on the floor of the School of the Art Institute in 1989. The flag was spread before an open ledger book. Visitors were invited to write down their thoughts. You could step on the flag or — as I did — you could stretch around, reaching from the side, avoid trampling the flag, and write something. The choice was yours. Too much choice for veterans groups, who shut down Michigan Avenue. Patriots phoned in bomb threats. The Senate banned displaying flags on the floor, 97 to 0, the most eloquent argument to display flags on the floor I can imagine. You know who enforces patriotism by law? Dictatorships. They blast their risible national anthem from tinny speakers every morning and the cowed serfs under their thumb stop their cars and stand outside, heads bowed, because no one dare not to. Is that greatness? I don’t think so. I love the flag, and display mine with pride, say the pledge with feeling, hand over my heart. I am not diminished because others disagree dramatically. That’s their right. There is shame here, but it belongs to Taliaferro for threatening — in the classic way of bullies — to punish Sigcho-Lopez for showing up at a protest where someone did something without his knowledge. The classic chilling effect. Who would ever attend any protest anywhere if you were suddenly responsible for the speech and actions of every person there? But that’s the point, isn’t it? America is staring down the barrel of despotism. Free speech is our lifeline, one that some would cut in the name of a grotesque parody of patriotism. Don’t let them do it.

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