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July 2, 2006 - Shutting Things Down

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Actually, the two issues that seem to be at the center of the national dialog as the week began on Monday, June 26, are related, even if they don't seem to be. As the Senate was dropping all other business to work on passing a proposed amendment to the constitution to ban flag burning - something no protester has done since the late sixties - simultaneously the whole right side of things is calling for the New York Times to be charged with treason, or so the Republican Congressman from New York, that excitable King fellow, said should be done. Well, he said that on Fox News Sunday and the president helped him out the following day, just as the Senate was getting into the flag burning thing.

Obviously there's a call from the Republican side for everyone to get patriotic - and some antique form of letting people know you are unhappy with the government should be forbidden, and the press should be patriotic too, and not print what the government says they shouldn't print. Patriotism here is shutting up, and not rocking the boat.

But flag burning? When did that become a problem?

It became a problem, of course, when all the polling is showing the Republicans could easily lose the House in the upcoming November elections, and might lose the Senate too. They need to remind voters that they will let no one protest in the wrong way ever again, like way back when, nor will they let the press print what the government says it shouldn't print. There are limits, and people need to know them. For a crowd that so often derides "political correctness" as an evil that undercuts free speech and "open dialog," there's no small irony here. After all the outrage and anger at "what you can't say" - blacks really are inferior and Mexicans lazy and whatnot - here they are taking a gamble, hoping their hyper-patriotic base and a few in the middle will agree that there are, well, exceptions.

The effort in the Senate is being led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, just as he led the effort to keep one brain-dead woman alive (he said she certainly wasn't, and he was a doctor after all), and just as he led the effort to pass a proposed amendment to constitution to ban gay marriage, as that was just wrong too. He needs a win one of these days, and this may be it. This one may have just enough votes to pass.

Tim Grieve here calls the effort "Gay Marriage II" and that fits. And as the Wall Street Journal notes here, Frist was working with Daniel Wheeler, the executive director of the American Legion and the president of the Citizens Flag Alliance. Wheeler "says he has never seen a flag on fire" but considers the flag-burning amendment "crucial because it 'reflects the values of the American people.'" Right.

Grieve says this -


Here in the reality-based community, we tend to deal more with things we have seen. And as we sit back to watch the Senate debate a constitutional amendment over flag burning, we wonder how some of the things we've seen "reflect the values of the American people." We're thinking here about places like New Orleans and Guantánamo; we're thinking about families struggling to make it on a federal minimum wage that hasn't been increased in nearly a decade; we're thinking about more than 50,000 dead Iraqis, more than 2,500 dead Americans, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of both who will spend their lives suffering from the devastating injuries of war.

How does any of that "reflect the values of the American people"? And what, exactly, has Bill Frist done about it?


Not much, of course, but we're talking baseball, apple pie and motherhood here.

Really, we're talking baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers' baseball specifically - even if the team motto is, unfortunately, "Go Blue!"

Michael Scherer explains the baseball connection here -


If only for a cigarette lighter, Rick Monday would have gone down in history as just another above-average baseball player, a left-hander who peaked with a 32-home-run season. But on April 25, 1976, two bell-bottomed protesters jumped the outfield fence at Dodger Stadium and streaked onto the field with an American flag, a bottle of lighter fluid and a pack of matches. The first match didn't light. By the time they got the second match going, Monday had run over to snatch the flag away, making his mark as the slugger who saved the Stars and Stripes.

Thirty years later, it is politics as much as patriotism that keeps Monday's achievement in the headlines. Senate Republicans have been treating him like a war hero in recent weeks, passing a resolution to commemorate his courage and holding a Flag Day rally on the lawn outside the Capitol in his honor. The slugger brought with him the yellowed and tattered, but uncharred, flag he saved in Los Angeles, as six senators took their turn at a podium to praise Old Glory and memorialize the outfielder's spot decision. "It is arguably one of the greatest moments in the game," praised Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, who played as a pitcher in the major leagues until 1971. "Like Rick, we should do everything we can to protect and honor our flag."


Monday was a pretty good ballplayer, and Bunning a fine pitcher, but this is almost comic. One assumes they served apple pie, and photogenic mothers of the June Cleaver type stood around with their cute little blond kids.

But Monday seems to really want to be, as Scherer explains, the "poster boy for the latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration."

Ah, but such things happen when the Republicans sense danger, which in this case is a loss of power.

And this one will be close -


The current vote counts used by both Republicans and Democrats put the flag amendment within one vote of the two-thirds majority needed for passage - the closest margin on this issue in the history of the republic. A total of 14 Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Dianne Feinstein of California, are expected to join 52 Republicans who support changing the Constitution to allow federal prohibitions of flag burning. A solid minority of senators, including Majority Whip Mitch McConnell and two other Republicans, are expected to hold back the tide. The House, meanwhile, has already passed the flag amendment, under the unlikely leadership of Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat, and Duke Cunningham, a now-convicted California Republican.


Stop!  Yeah, the House passed it - they'd vote to take the vote way from women and dark skinned folks, to beatify George Bush if the pope would agree, and bring back slavery - as they are heavy with "red meat" conservatives, but the new enemy of the right Jack Murtha, and the man in jail for taking bribes so incompetent contractors got key defense contractors got business, led this. That's delicious.

And there's this from Frist, after the "baseball" rally - "There is a new spirit coming across the country. I think you can feel it in the last six months - people coming together around the flag."


What's he been smoking?

Scherer helpfully runs down the main arguments and counter arguments - Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont saying this is lot like the gay marriage thing, just posturing, and "I think the Constitution is too important to be used for partisan gain." And Mitch McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, is screwing up his own party by saying he won't vote for it - something or other about free speech and all that, and then he may be up for Frist's job as majority leader.

The cool thing is how they're dealing with McConnell, "trotting out Heather French Henry, a former Miss America from Kentucky, to publicly call for her senator's vote."  She says he's just not representing "the people."  And she was Miss America, after all.  She knows.  She had the title, officially.

And the Republicans want this debate now, and if it passes, the debate in the legislatures of all fifty states, and it must be ratified by thirty-eight states to get added to the constitution. They've got the baseball players, and the former Miss America, and their side. You want to oppose that? Scherer - "Most Republicans have made no secret of their desire to thrust America into a full-fledged debate over a form of protest that went out of style before the Bee Gees fell off the charts."
Then there's Orrin Hatch of Utah -


"Five unelected activist jurists changed the law," Hatch said at the Flag Day rally, referring to the divided 1989 Supreme Court decision that struck down federal laws against flag burning.


Hatch, of course, did not mention that one of those "activist jurists" was arch-conservative Antonin Scalia.


Oops. As you recall, the Supreme Court did rule that burning the flag might be offensive, but much free speech can be offensive to one side or the other, and you just didn't go and make rules to make sure no one is offended - that's just not how it's supposed to work.  And Scalia said so.

And as for the matter of urgency -


... Republicans are also struggling to deal with the current trends in flag desecration. In recent years, public reports of flag burning have become far less common than fatal lightning strikes. This has driven Sen. Bob Bennett, the junior Republican from Utah, to oppose the amendment. "It's a non-problem," Bennett told Salon, in a statement. "The only time people burn the flag is when this amendment comes up."

... In 1990, Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans supported the amendment. That number dropped to 55 percent in 2005, a measure that held steady in a CNN poll completed this month. Flag burning is not a red-hot issue for voters in general: A June Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that only 4 percent of registered voters consider flag burning one of the two most important issues in this year's election. By contrast, 53 percent identified the Iraq war and 32 percent mentioned illegal immigration, while on social issues, 21 percent of voters ranked abortion as a top issue, and 16 percent named gay marriage.

All this may make Americans wonder why the Senate is now closer than ever to forcing another round in the 1970s culture wars.


That's a good question. Everyone really misses the Bee Gees?

Some others make sense. Not a senator yet, but running in Virginia against the incumbent George Allen, is James Webb - the former Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, the best-selling author (Fields of Fire from 1978), and a former United States Marine Corps officer decorated for valor in the Vietnam War. He's left the Republicans. He's running as a Democrat. Allen is the tobacco-chewing good ol' boy wannabe, son of the famous football coach, with the confederate flags all over (more detail in these pages here). So it's the done-everything, intellectual and writer and lawyer and man of action, against the "I don't read nothin' much" never-in-the-military man of the Old South, who went to high school out here in chic Palos Verdes and cut classes a lot.

Allen wants the amendment to pass. Webb, doesn't -


"Jim Webb has great respect for our national flag and great respect for our Constitution, and is proud of the many contributions his family has made in defense of both. Like many combat veterans such as General Colin Powell and former Senators John Glenn and Bob Kerry, he does not believe it is necessary to amend the Constitution in order to protect the dignity of our flag. This is yet another example of deliberately divisive politics that distract Americans from the real issues that are facing our country," said Kristian Denny Todd, spokeswoman for the Webb campaign.


So why do military men, like Webb and Powell and Glenn, think this is all silliness? Maybe they fought so people had the right to burn the flag if they're angry - it's offensive, yes, and meant to be, but there are bigger issues, and it only makes the "burner" look petty and foolish. What's the problem?

What Webb says on his campaign site -


There are many challenges facing Americans today: an unpopular war, skyrocketing health care costs, a shrinking job market and rising inequality in society. I believe in the strength of American character and the ingenuity of the American people. With the right leaders we can overcome all of these obstacles. America doesn't lack ideas, it lacks leaders willing to stand up and make courageous decisions.

I have fought - and continue to fight - to protect American values. I fought in Vietnam with the hope that the Vietnamese might share the same freedoms we enjoy. I fought as a congressional committee counselor to guarantee our veterans the treatment they deserve. I fought as Secretary of the Navy to maintain the excellence of our military. I fought, pro bono, on behalf of countless veterans and refugees, in order that they might have their voices heard in the vast government bureaucracy. And I will fight in the Senate to give all Americans the chance to achieve their dreams.


Frist would say "that's a loser" and they will attack this -


Webb was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He served with the 5th Marine Regiment in Vietnam as a rifle platoon and company commander. He remained in the Marine Corps until 1972, receiving the Navy Cross, the second-highest award in the Navy; the Silver Star Medal; two Bronze Star Medals; and two Purple Hearts.

Webb wrote his first book, Micronesia and U.S. Pacific Strategy, while a law student at Georgetown University. He received his J.D. in 1975. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs and then Secretary of the Navy (1987-1988) during the Reagan Administration. He resigned as Secretary of the Navy after refusing to agree to reduce the size of the Navy.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Webb wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today in which he considered the candidacies of John Kerry and George W. Bush from the perspective of military veterans. He criticized Kerry for his activism against the Vietnam War in the 1970s while affiliated with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Bush for having "committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory" with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


So he's another Kohn Kerry coward, not a fighter pilot like Bush. You know how that will play out.

And then there's the Hollywood thing - Webb wrote the story and was the executive producer for Rules of Engagement (2000), and Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson were in that. And Rob Reiner is directing his Whiskey River, now in production at Warner Brothers over in Burbank. Rob Reiner is so not red state. And too there's his past - Webb won a varsity letter for boxing at Annapolis, but in his second-class (junior) year, he fought and lost in a controversial decision to Oliver North, the fellow convicted of lying to congress in the Iran-Contra business and who now has his own show, War Stories, on Fox News.

So he will probably lose again. He doesn't care if some misguided idiot burns a flag one day. He thinks there are bigger issues than punishing such assholes, if they return from the late sixties and early seventies. The congress doesn't. The House passed the thing, and the Senate has dropped everything to try to pass it.

Some of us see the whole thing as kind of a joke. But it's not. It's chipping away at what cannot be "said" politically. That's a dangerous business. Patriots don't shut up when something is just wrong. And both sides do dramatic things. How do you draw the line?

The there's the New York Times. How do you draw the line there?

First it was the Pentagon Papers, and now we have Eric Lichtblau and James Risen doing their reporting. Last year it was these two reporting that the Bush administration was monitoring telephone calls and scanning all telephone records without the warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (here). And last week it was the news that the Bush administration has been monitoring and examining the bank records of thousands of American citizens (here). The first won them the Pulitzer Prize. The second made lots of folks angry, like Congressman King from New York, who said here he wants to see the Times prosecuted for running banking story and "putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people."

Monday, June 26, the president got angry, saying running the story was "disgraceful" and "does great harm to the United States of America." The White House press secretary said this - "The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know in some cases might override somebody's right to live."

If they know we bent the rules to amass tons of private banking records then they'll hide the money trail and we'll all die? Something like that. You could see the Vice President and every talking head on cable discussing this. You can believe there are some things you shouldn't know, as others would then know them too, or you don't, as knowing the administration is breaking a whole lot of laws and bending others, and your privacy is fast disappearing, is a big deal.

So which sort are you?

Arthur Silber puts it nicely here -


When you strip away the numerous distracting details and irrelevancies, people exhibit one of two basic perspectives toward government (including a particular administration that holds power), and toward authority in general. One group, composed of people some might consider skeptics but whom I regard as realists, consistently questions and challenges any concentration of power. Such people recognize one of history's primary lessons: that power seeks to protect its own prerogatives, as it simultaneously seeks to extend its reach. The realists recognize that people who routinely exercise great power should always be held to account for their actions, and there must always be restraints against abuses of power. They reject out of hand anyone's demand for unquestioning loyalty and obedience, a demand often expressed in the form: "Trust me." The realists know that it is precisely the person who makes such demands who is never to be trusted. Honorable people do not demand or expect unquestioning obedience.

The second group is made up of people who are eager to let others make the decisions that shape their lives. They identify with authority in general, and they willingly offer up their own judgment and independence on behalf of those who hold the reins of power. The phrase "speaking truth to power" not only doesn't hold meaning for such people: for these psychological dependents, truth and power are coextensive. The idea that truth and power might be fundamentally opposed almost never occurs to them, because they regard it as inconceivable and incomprehensible. These are the people who do not wait for the demand, "Trust me." They eagerly volunteer their trust to those in power before it is even requested. They think this proves their loyalty. If you rely on others to guide and protect your own life, loyalty is the prerequisite for such protection. The dependents know this without being told - and so do those who hold power. The necessary interrelationship of the dependents and those with power ensures that the scheme will continue without challenge.


And no one should, in anger, burn a flag. That's disloyal.

And as for the press -


The press in this country has voluntarily placed itself in the role of abject dependent for several decades. Many members of the press will rush to reassure us of their independence and their willingness to challenge power - and they will point to their treatment of the Clinton presidency as a notable example. But what did the press challenge in that instance? Not matters of state, and not anything remotely connected to the power government exercises or the policies it pursues - but irrelevant business deals from the remote past, or private sexual behavior. In the same way, if Bush should declare martial law after another terrorist attack and begin to exercise full dictatorial powers, the press will rise to the challenge of questioning absolute power in the new environment in its usual fashion. Our press will offer numerous articles and commentary about whether our President for Life (under an emergency law passed in both houses by large margins) should speak to us more often, to explain how he is protecting us and why we shouldn't be concerned about those friends, acquaintances and even relatives who have mysteriously vanished from our lives. Our President for Life knows what is best for us, our press will tell us repeatedly and with many variations, and he's the only one who can keep us safe. But it would be so much nicer if he reassured us more often. Unlike the members of the press itself, ordinary citizens often don't understand the wisdom exemplified by our leaders, and by our President for Life. They tend to worry unnecessarily. The President for Life should calm their fears, and talk to them regularly in his soothing, folksy way. He should make clear that, although he holds the power of life and death over all of us, he's really a "regular" guy. He just happens to be a dictator - but that last attack showed that's what we need now.


There's much more at the link, but with few exceptions, like the Times at times, that's where we are.

What's happening with these two issues this week is the loyalists against the realists. And the issue is whether folks should just shut up and trust the guys in charge. It's getting pretty basic.

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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