I hate to pick at a scab, but I am not quite settled on the flag-burning incident that brought a wave of national media coverage, yet no real discussion. I am a proud Democrat, but I am sorry: You do not burn a flag in my backyard (so to speak) and get it written off as just another act of drunken vandalism. While the legal specifics are pending, the apologetic and even apathetic response from the overly liberal student body is representative of the reason why, Barack or not, Democrats will have a hard time winning in 2008 unless they can prove to that silent majority of Americans somewhere in the Midwest and the South that they are damn proud to be American.
In case you were knee-deep in your senior essay at the time, three Yale students were arrested early on April 3 for burning someone else’s American flag. They were arrested and one student, Hyder Akbar, immediately took the blame. Since then, their line has been that the act was not politically motivated. Right. And I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
I have been known to be a suspicious and at times unsympathetic person, but I would like to tease this one out a little bit more. You mean to tell me Hyder and his crew were just messing around? Bored on a late Monday night so they decided to light up the old red, white and blue? Somehow, when I carouse with my friends, the first thought that pops into my head is not to burn the American flag, a symbol of the proud legacy of this country as opposed to the asinine foreign policy of our current president. (And in case you are wondering what I do when I roister with my friends, I apparently go off on a tirade about the president’s Grandpa Prescott — the start of it all — whose picture hangs in Mory’s Library Room, left side.)
I am a patriot and a Democrat. Why is it so hard to be both? I yearn for the days when Democrats found it cool to be American.
I am as upset about Iraq as the next student — don’t get me wrong — but I find the act of desecrating an American flag despicable and morally repugnant. And here’s why: There are literally millions of people who have risked it all for this country. We have an incredible thing in America, and do not let seven misguided years cause you to forget that. People died for you. People of different religions, ethnicities and political views. You are lucky to hold that passport, you ingrate.
The problem, of course, is not patriotism, but what it means to millions of voters. Gauging from the last presidential election, Americans equate a perceived inability to hold a flag with an inability to hold a gun. The lack of a tough foreign policy. An inability to fight terrorism. That is why Democrats lost in 2004. No one gave a damn about moral values when they thought back to those towers burning. The Republicans captured patriotism and they have literally gotten away with murder. The trick is to steal it back. If Democrats could convincingly hold an American flag, they could win back the White House. Tell me something: Why do Republican politicians tend to wear American flag pins on their lapels more than Democrats do? Republicans walk the walk and talk the talk, and Democrats do not even bother trying.
I watched as the flag-burning amendment went down in flames (please, like you could resist) by one vote in Washington this summer. That was not even a law we were talking about at the time, but a change in the holiest of holy U.S. documents. Clearly, a lot of Americans think the flag is a big deal. I am not suggesting that we try to pass the amendment or even a law again — if we restrict the right to burn a piece of cloth, how slippery is that slope? — but I also do not think we should be afraid to speak up when we think things are plain wrong. It was Voltaire who wrote, “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Free speech is as much about my writing this column as it is about Hyder’s burning a flag. But just as you would not hesitate to let me know you disagree with what I write, so too do not be quick to write off those errant Elis as mere vandals.
Hyder Akbar owes us and everyone who has died for that flag an explanation. I challenge you, Hyder, to justify your action. We are all waiting.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.