In Our Name

I have been thinking about something today and it has made me very angry. It’s been stewing for a long time, but today I finally figured out how to write about it.

In 1984, Greg Johnson participated in a march in Dallas to the Dallas city hall, in order to protest policies of the Reagan administration and corporations. Mind, this was long before I lived there, so I couldn’t have participated in it. At the city hall, Johnson poured kerosene on an American flag and set it ablaze. No one was injured in the demonstration, but people were offended by his actions. That was his intent. He was arrested and convicted, and sentenced to a $2,000 fine and one year in jail for violating a Texas law banning vandalism of respected objects. The American flag is one of those respected objects.

His conviction was affirmed by a Texas District Court of Appeals, and then overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The state said that its interests were more important than Johnson’s symbolic speech rights because it wanted to preserve the flag as a symbol of national unity and because it wanted to maintain order. The court said neither of these state interests could be used to justify Johnson’s conviction.

The court said, “Recognizing that the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms, a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens. Therefore, that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol…” The court also concluded that the flag burning in this case did not cause or threaten to cause a breach of the peace.

The state had argued that its interests were more important than Johnson’s symbolic speech writes? Seriously? Does anybody realize what they were trying to argue? They were arguing that in this land of the free, the republic that had been wrested from King George in the name of freedom from monarchical restrictions on commerce, speech, press, religious independence of thought, representative democracy with real power for the people (which were then still defined as white landowners), and the sundry concepts of freedom embodied in the symbolism of the flag, the symbol is more important than the substance.

The courts rightly saw through this argument. There are actions which, while offensive and even if intended to be, are valid expressions of outrage. The same law, had it been affirmed, could be used to prosecute people who deface an image of the president, as in the Joker picture or pictures of Obama as a witch doctor. It would also enable prosecution of depictions of George Dubya B himself as a chimp.

Perhaps the crime that Johnson should have and could have been rightly convicted for was theft of government property; but to the prosecutors and the police that wasn’t as important as protecting the symbol over that for which it stands. Undyed, a flag is a piece of cloth. Dyed with the symbol of a state, or a country it gains meaning. What we need to remember is that this republic is not a “homeland” in the sense that Swaziland is a “homeland,” or that Germany was considered a “Fatherland.” It is a cobbled republic, whose borders weren’t even established as they currently stand until 1958. What I have been observing the last eight years, since the attacks on the World Trade Center, is a large degree of confusion over what a republic is and should be.

A republic pieced together from colonized land, and through territorial war over a less advanced group of civilizations who were marginalized as being “savages,” is only a homeland for people who have been here for three, four or five generations. There was no historical claim over what we now refer to as “These United States” until we took it; part of that was belief in Manifest Destiny, part of that was a desire to escape from monarchical dictatorial rule, part of that was to trade in resources and people, part of that was just to have more space and to have land. Others here were forcibly immigrated in order to provide the cheap labor favored by unfettered free trade.

The revolutionaries we lionize were very clear that when the treaty was signed and the thirteen colonies were no longer subject to the British monarchy, they did want to build a republican form of government based on the idea that the rule of law is superior to the rule of men (yes, that was the language). And they also recognized that the rights on which they based their freedoms were to be considered to be universal and not limited to our shores. The meaning of the opening of the Declaration of Independence’s “endowed by our Creator” was not an obeisance to the Christian God, but instead to the fact that by common roots of ancestry, we start with these rights by birth and they are then only to be taken away justifiably. It was part of an argument against the “divine right of kings,” or the idea that monarchs were directed through God to make governmental decisions for their country.

It was also a manifesto that rights don’t stop at borders; they are universal. They couldn’t declare independence for France, because they didn’t live there. They couldn’t declare freedom for Haiti, Brazil, Spain, Russia or any of the other places in the world ruled by either colonizers or monarchs. They could only declare independence for themselves, but they wanted to see a world where the rights were recognized and not “granted.” It isn’t for other people to “grant” me rights that I naturally have.

One of the great advantages of the American Revolution has been that it led to a discovery of the principles, and laid open the imposition, of governments. All the revolutions till then had been worked within the atmosphere of a court and never on the grand floor of a nation. The parties were always of the class of courtiers, and whatever was their rage for reformation, they carefully preserved the fraud of the profession.

In all cases, they took care to represent government as a thing made up of mysteries, which only they themselves understood, and they hid from the understanding of the nation the only thing that was beneficial to know, namely, that government is nothing more than a national association adding on the principles of society.

For many years, our foreign policy was a matter of moving towards this concept. While protecting our interests to an extent abroad, it was concentrated on defense of what the republic ideal had started. We muddled that by colonization of other countries to facilitate trade with merchants whose own countries were self-determined. We were not considering the freedoms of the countries we were colonizing but following the historical examples of those governments we had fought against. We colonized the Phillippines to wrest them from Spanish rule, and while the goal was to help them to establish independence, it was complicated by commercial factors. We had to make sure that the “right” people were in power.

This carried even further as British rule fell from its historical basis that provided for the saying that the “sun never sets on the British Empire.” Following World War I, in which we firmly established our ascendancy of military might, we made alliances with countries who would protect our commercial interests even when and if those countries had no respect for the individual rights of humans. Trade was a larger factor than our promotion of liberty.

Following the end of World War II, we were the colonial power in the world, and the movement towards the Cold War led to our foreign policy meeting our tremendous need for raw materials and products and oil. Our competitor, though weaker, was a band of republics with a competing ideology of advanced socialism (though never put into place. It’s odd that power finds its way even when people have revolted for freedom). We defended our colonizing and our support for extremely repressive governments such as in Iran, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua as being necessary to protect their people from communism, but we were not being honest. We were protecting our trade against the Soviet Union and China. The Soviets and Chinese were oppressive and dictatorial, but they had learned their lessons from the British and from our own colonial activities.

People who had revolted against their colonizers, as our revolutionaries had, sought to follow our example and establish free republics, only to be rebuffed by our overriding need to maintain alliances. We sided with France because we needed their support when the Vietnamese won their revolution against colonialism. Ho Chi Minh had wanted to do as the Liberians had done and to set up a constitutional democracy similar to ours. We said, “No.” He then went to the only place he could go, and that was to the Chinese and to the Soviet Union. What had been an opportunity to spread democracy became a domino that fell against us, and we went to war when the French pulled out. The Cubans had wanted to have their freedom, but we needed to have Bautista in place and we said, “No.” They went to the Soviet Union, who had seen an opportunity to move into our “neighborhood.” Cuba ended up subject to the rule of a “revolutionary” as power mad as the dictator he replaced, but he had learned the language of revolution from us and so he has been able to convince his people through coercion and propaganda that they are on the front end of social change.

We even turned the Sandinistas away when they came to us for help in overthrowing Somoza, and then the Soviets again saw their chance.

What the people in other countries see in the United States is great wealth and opportunity, and freedom, but they see that the freedom is reserved for Americans and instead of being the force for Republican rule. Our country has been acting like a monarchy when it comes to dealing with other countries and their freedoms, and it really doesn’t help that large sectors of society claim a divine right to do so. Yes, we tangled religion and claimed it as our source of power much as had Good King George III.

Our attempts in our founding documents have faltered. We have become hypocritical in this, and we have acted as though citizens have rights by grant of the republic rather than by right of birth. If we can’t be honest about what is happening, we will never understand why terrorists have targeted us. George W. Bush led us to war not only by lying to us about our enemy’s capabilities, but he also swept us up into a hatred of those Others, those who wear turbans and headdresses. While he may have tried to differentiate between our friends and our enemies, he was not powerful enough of a communicator to make sure that our patriots understood. No, he was very loud and clear that, “They hate us because of our freedoms,” when in fact they hate us for our hypocrisy.

And this is where the greatest damage to our flag has been done since September 11, 2001. The government was granted far more power to exert its supremacy over us than it deserved, and under the banner of “Homeland Security,” it took the right by executive power and a compliant Congress and court to do that which would have horrified our revolutionaries. They bypassed judicial review of intrusions of our privacy and our rights to be able to communicate without being overheard by the watchdogs. Worse, they sought a way to do that which is most horrendous to human dignity and the rights granted by our common humanity.

They took the right from us to be secure from torture. And by “us,” I mean humanity. The Bush and Cheney White House firmly established in our minds that the right to torture is a right of government when it is done in order to “protect” us. They established in our minds that we are no longer a republic, but a unique people that have greater rights than any other people. They did this through functionaries of evil who were wearing patches of the American flag, the flag of the United States of America.

When the CIA was instructed to send people under the presumption of guilt, before being able to prove their innocence, to countries where torture has no legal safeguards, they took on the power of divine right to destroy the humanity of people they suspected of crimes of war, but without proof enough to stand before a court of law, nor to grant writs of habeus corpus to judicial oversight. They violated the ideas of freedom that have been fought for by people against oppressive governments. Freedom is a young concept, and this republic which touts the notion of freedom is going backwards in the progress towards freedom for all people. We are not an example of how this is supposed to be done, because we still can’t separate Homeland Patriotism from the patriotism that comes from defending the ideas of liberty.

These people did, in our name, more damage to the flag than any expression of disgust and dismay done by flag-burners could ever do, and instead of being held accountable for their actions, they will be promoted and get pensions. They will be praised by our conservatives who think our “sovereignty” is primary to our recognition that freedom is to be shared and can’t be “guarded” by oppression.

I was at a bar one night talking to people who think that torture is okay if it is done to suspected terrorists, who said that I am naive to think that we should be guarding the republic rather than the “homeland.” I hated the idea, because then we are no better than the British we fought against in the Revolutionary War, and whose actions made apparent the need for the Bill of Rights. While the bill can only be enforced in our republic, the rights of citizens are the rights of residents because of our nature of birth and not because of our place of birth. We also need to remember and enforce our laws, and to remind our guardians that they are to defend the republic and not the homeland, or else we should just strike the Nobility Clause and crown kings every four years. At least then, we would be honest to the nature of the sort of nation that we have become over the naivete and idealism of the Framers.

It’s a good thing for the French that Tom Paine was so naive.

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2 Responses to “In Our Name”

  1. January 5th, 2010 at 6:08 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    One of the best arguments on this in one place I’ve seen, Mike.

    So, do you think we’ll ever grow into our constitution?

  2. January 5th, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    I don’t know if we ever can grow into it. One of our impeditments is the insistence on tying religion to country and that’s a big one that we will be fighting for a long time. When American Exceptionalism is tied so closely to our “Chrisitan Heritage” then it is really hard to break this idea of natonalism as substitute for patriotism.

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