July 4 is here. How do you plan to celebrate our nation’s nativity?
I may produce some grilled ribs, cole slaw and potato salad. Corn on the cob. Later, fireworks.
And then to top the day off, I think I’ll burn an American flag in the backyard. You might want to join me.
I made this suggestion in print a few years ago; some readers took exception. I was invited to move to France, to self-deport to the infernal regions or to perform remarkable anatomical contortions upon myself.
Actually, I have no intention or desire to burn an American flag on July 4. But I deeply esteem the right bestowed on me and you by the Constitution and the Supreme Court to do so, if I should, for some reason, wish to.
The fact that you may think that I shouldn’t do it – and I generally agree with you – is separate from an appreciation of the fact that I have a right to do it.
Not every country allows its citizens to exercise such freedoms, and I’m not talking just about totalitarian countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In France and Austria you can be sent to prison for six months for burning a flag, and in Germany for up to five years.
In fact, a glance over Wikipedia’s list of flag statutes indicates that most countries have laws that prohibit burning or other desecrations of national symbols. They enforce these laws with varying degrees of rigidity. But the United States is in a small minority – along with a few countries such as Canada and Belgium – that decline to make flag burning illegal.
It’s a paradox: Our dedication to the right of free speech is such that we permit the destruction of the very symbols of that right.
But it’s a paradox that James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” would appreciate. According to biographer Richard Brookhiser, when Madison was helping draft a Declaration of Rights for Virginia in 1776, he hesitated over proposed language that would have provided for the “fullest toleration” of the practice of religion, which, implied that the state has the right to determine what will be tolerated.
Madison proposed instead: “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. He preferred to view the free practice of religion as a natural right, rather than a right granted by the state. This principle was embodied in our national constitution.
In other words, the right itself precedes the state’s prerogative to grant the right. Thus Americans have an obligation that exceeds even the government’s to tolerate free speech, even speech that they find repugnant.
Have a splendid July 4. Don’t burn a flag. But take a moment to celebrate your inherent right – and that of your fellow citizens – to protest as you see fit. That is what makes our nation truly exceptional.