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And that's what a lot of politicians are counting on.
Over the past couple of years, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver has spent many of his trips home complaining about the big sham issues in Congress.
"The philosophy here in Washington is simple," Cleaver tells me. "When things look bad for your side, change the subject and you play on the emotions of a segment of the public. Flag burning, the federal marriage amendment, and if they can come up with something comparable to saving Christmas, which is what they did last year, or another Terri Schiavo ... these so-called wedge issues will put emotions above reason. As long as the public is inclined to do that, that's going to continue to be one of the strategies of this administration."
Like many of us, Cleaver believes that the more important issue is "the places we are burning as we wave the flag, like Baghdad." He goes on: "We have an $8.3 trillion debt, we are borrowing a million every second, paying $600,000 interest every second of the day. The third-highest expenditure in the U.S. budget is interest on the debt," Cleaver says. "So why in the world should we stop in the middle of all of those issues vital to the welfare of this nation to focus on something that's not a problem?"
As Cleaver points out, "We are not in the middle of a flag-burning frenzy." When an issue is completely unrelated to people's day-to-day lives, Cleaver says, "The chances are really high that it is a sham issue. When these things are done by the administration, it is declaring almost openly that the public is not wise and therefore we can trick them at will. Which ought to be an insult to every American."
Tired of watching my brothers and sisters being insulted, and inspired by the Starkweathers' music, I decided to take Smith's advice. It was time to burn a flag.
I don't actually own one, so, like all good Americans, I go to Wal-Mart. There, I'm relieved to discover that the American flags are all made in the U.S.A. (If you buy a whole rig, though, a pole and everything, the label notes that some components may be made in China.) But I'm not so happy to discover one reason that we might really need to pass a flag-protection amendment: packages and packages of flag-designed paper plates and napkins. This is clearly a violation of the U.S. Flag Code, Chapter 1, Sec. 8, rule (i): "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard."
There are a lot of these regulations that define respect for the flag, including the last one: "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."
I laid down $9 and walked out of Wal-Mart with my 3-inch-by-5-inch, poly-cotton Old Glory in a clear plastic wrapper. Once I had my burnin'-flag in hand, a strange thing happened. I figured it was my right, protected by the U.S. Constitution as a form of free speech, and that we ought to use those rights while we got 'em. But before torching the thing, I had to ask myself some serious questions.