Standing Up for Freedom

An English teacher recently sent me a column I wrote, and he had clipped (remember when you clipped things?), almost 30 years ago when a poll showed a majority of Americans supported a ban on burning the American flag as political protest. It is so oddly of the moment I thought I’d share:





TOM SHRODER, Herald Tropic Editor

On my desk is a photo of an anti-busing demonstration in Boston in the early ’70s: A white man, his face bent with rage, charges at a black man. In the white man’s hands is a pole he is about to thrust into the black man’s body as if it were a spear. On the end of this pole is the American flag.
About the same time the picture was taken I was sitting in a high-school classroom. Everyone else was standing. Some were reciting the pledge of allegiance. Not me. The football coach, who was monitor of this morning study hall, lunged down the aisle and grabbed me by the shoulder. He pulled me to my feet and dragged me to the principal’s office.
“Son,” he said, looking down at me from 6’3″, “Don’t you love this country?”
When you are 16, political expression is not often articulate. I couldn’t have said then what I now understand: yes, I love this country, but the flag to me is at best an ambiguous symbol for it — a symbol as much of the worst parts of America as of the best.
The flag is what the Seventh Cavalry carried as it thundered into Indian villages and slaughtered unarmed women and children. The flag was what Senator Joe McCarthy waved in his ruinous crusade against political liberals. The flag is what flew from the university buildings when the Governor of Mississippi stood in the doorway to block the passage of a black student. The flag is what mobs of decent Americans were “protecting” when they broke into a peaceful anti-war demonstration and beat the protesters bloody. The flag is what Richard Nixon tried, and nearly succeeded, to hide behind when

and nearly succeeded, to hide behind when his criminal activities and abuse of power were about to be revealed. The flag is what Lt. Calley thought he was serving when he massacred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.
To me, the flag was more a symbol of the authority of government than of the ideals that limited that authority. It was a symbol that had been too often co-opted by bigots and car salesmen, too often used to bully and corral dissenters, to advance the selfish interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Pledging allegiance to the flag because someone in authority ordered me to would have been the same thing as saying, “My country right or wrong.”
There is a symbol of our country I would never have hesitated to salute — the yellowed parchment of the Constitution. What were the odds that a set of abstract ideas, however noble or carefully drafted, could have survived two centuries of war and depression, the creation of unimaginable wealth and terrible power, the complete transformation of the Earth, the passions and jealousies of generations?
Yet they did. Until now, when — in the name of preventing a lunatic’s melodramatic manipulation of a piece of cloth — the majority of the American public appears willing to hack a gaping hole in the Constitution that may never be mended.
I have to believe that is not true. I have to believe that, polls aside, the vast majority of Americans will eventually understand that the Supreme Court’s decision to grant flag- burning first amendment protection was neither irresponsible nor radical, but the reasoned consequence of what is finest about America.
When I was 16, the best I could do when the coach asked me that question was this: “Yeah, I love this country. And one of the things I love about it is I don’t have to say the pledge of allegiance if I don’t want to.”
I got five hours of detention



  1. Steve Fleischman says

    Hey Tom. I remember the picture, the column, and the story. The flag stands for many things, including that you don’t have to stand up for it–and sometimes, that you have the right to stand up to it.

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