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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Flag Day

According to evidence given at trial, the events which led to the conviction were these. Appellant testified that, during the afternoon of June 6, 1966, he was listening to the radio in his Brooklyn apartment. He heard a news report that civil rights leader James Meredith had been shot by a sniper in Mississippi. Saying to himself, "They didn't protect him," appellant, himself a Negro, took from his drawer a neatly folded, 48-star American flag which he formerly had displayed on national holidays. Appellant left his apartment and carried the still-folded flag to the nearby intersection of St. James Place and Lafayette Avenue. Appellant stood on the northeast corner of the intersection, lit the flag with a match, and dropped the flag on the pavement when it began to burn.
I noticed this bit in the Oyez.com summary of Street v. N.Y.: "Then, keeping the flag properly folded, he set it on fire with a match."  Also, the official rules include the way to dispose of a worn flag: “the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”  One might argue that when it is assumed killing civil rights leaders is the patriotic thing to do, the flag might be in bad condition, symbolically speaking. Anyway, Mr. Street in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Harlan* got off because it was deemed that words he used could have tainted the prosecution.

Flag Day (of course, it is Trump's birthday, since, yeah) generally is a good day to judge how best to promote patriotism. The wearing of flag pins or saying the pledge (with or without "under God") is of limited value here though patriotism is often of a showy sort. But, as with Jesus with prayer, defenders of patriotism might support a more private or at the very least less flashy style. This includes patriotic action, which is not just a matter of serving in the military or the like, but honoring our ideals.

This would include dissent as shown by the Barnette case with its honoring of the right to do so. [75th anniversary this year and yes it was handed down on Flag Day.]  As suggested by the author of the previous link, including his latest book, the case was also a major expression of the power and duty of the Supreme Court to protect rights, at times from majority will.  In practice, as noted by Hamilton's "neither purse or sword" line on down, judicial review is of limited power but clearly has force. And, the courts are part of government -- a bit of humility is a good thing there.

Some probably think Flag Day a tad gauche, especially given the tendency of people to wrap themselves in it. At least, we are talking about an American flag here -- the Confederate flag still has its supporters. But, symbols are fine, especially if used with caution. Honoring our flag, our nation, all fifty states, with colors for hardiness (red), purity (white) and justice (blue).  A voluntary pledge, especially in a public school system set up to promote civics, seems appropriate.  I would leave out the God stuff.

If I had a full flag (have a mini one somewhere) though, these days I might hang it at half-mast.** 


* The Brethren  noted that Harlan later respected the rights of symbolic speech directly by arguing that a conviction of a violation of New York's flag desecration [via flag sculptures, including in the shape of penises] statute was in contravention of his right of free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Douglas did not take part and the conviction was actually upheld by a 4-4 vote, Justice Black again finding symbolic speech not protected. It is a tad absurd (even if the sculptures were put in the window of a NYC gallery) that this sort of thing -- not even flag burning -- was not deemed protected.  If Black wanted to say burning a flag (manner) or even armbands in schools / jackets in courtrooms (place) is not covered, wrong, but somewhat reasonable. If art is not protected expression, come on.

** The one flag (to my knowledge) the immediate family has is in honor of my father's military service, provided at his death some years back. RIP and Happy Father's Day. 

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