For the past two days, the front page of the Leesburg Daily Commercial has reported – with conspicuous glee – the embarrassing removal of an Obama-themed U.S. flag from the property of the Lake County Democratic Party in Tavares. County chairwoman Nancy Hurlbert, confronted by angry veterans who seemed ready to take matters into their own hands, was left little choice but to pull down the flag, which featured a portrait of the President in the area of Old Glory normally reserved for stars of somewhat greater authenticity. Although the Daily Commercial‘s palpable schadenfreude stands in disappointingly marked contrast to its tepid defense of Democratic protesters’ free-speech rights in The Villages last year (when Governor Scott’s entourage engaged in blatant violations of the First Amendment), there can be no denying that this was a truly spectacular own-goal by local Democrats. Whether one sees the Obama flag as a desecration, a symbol of dictatorship, an illegal violation of the flag code, or simply as an unintentionally hilarious parody, it is hard to fathom what Nancy Hurlbert and her cohorts were thinking. Given the Republicans’ single-minded dedication to appropriating the flag for their own purposes, couldn’t they see this problem coming from a mile away?
But that transitory, local question is far from the most salient issue raised by this little drama. Lake County’s “flag flap” reminds us of the potency of national symbols, particularly, of course, among veterans’ groups. For timid news organizations like the Leesburg Daily Commercial, exploiting these familiar, patriotic themes is easy lifting, guaranteed to secure nods of approval from heads that nod off quite readily, and equally likely to fail to challenge readers to apply fresh perspectives. For example, one of the observations that will never be made by the Daily Commercial is the fact that other peoples in foreign lands have similar feelings about their own national symbols. Recent columns in the Daily Commercial from Cal Thomas and all the usual suspects have poured scorn on the Afghan people for showing ingratitude to their benevolent American occupiers by daring to be offended by the burning of multiple Korans by U.S. forces. But has it ever occurred to these jingoistic paragons of conservative virtue that people raised with different traditions – bearing in mind that respect for tradition is the core of classical, Burkean conservatism – might feel as strongly about a holy book as some of us do about a piece of fabric? Indeed, a dispassionate observer – if such a creature may be found – could be forgiven for thinking that a substantial work of religious literature might even possess more intrinsic value than the flag of a relatively young nation.
This observation in no way excuses violent reprisals by Muslims against perceived slights. Nor is it as tangential to the Obama flag flap as it might at first appear. For the ultimate problem here, applicable to incensed Muslims plotting against Danish cartoonists who have offended their delicate sensibilities or to old G.I.’s in retirement meccas like Central Florida contemplating trespass, is that they are all completely missing the point. When human lives are being destroyed and human rights are disappearing before our very eyes, there are far more worthy targets for our righteous indignation than mere symbols. If we’re going to get upset about something, then let’s get upset about something that really matters.
Thus, if the Leesburg Daily Commercial truly wanted to make a difference in the lives of its readers, it could devote its front page – preferably over and over again – to actions of the Obama Administration that can quite fairly be characterized as dictatorial, rather than to ill-conceived symbols that bespeak nothing more than incompetence. No, dear fellow reader, I am not referring to the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, to which the newspaper has devoted quite a few column inches. That policy, despite all the heated rhetoric, is no more dictatorial than Medicare, the other example of socialized medicine that everybody (except the plutocrats and their fawning minions) seems to like. I am referring to the Administration’s shocking – and shockingly under-reported – assertion that it has the right to kill United States citizens anywhere on the globe if it considers them to be terrorists. With breathtaking arrogance reminiscent of the English Star Chamber, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Fifth Amendment – which prohibits the taking of life, liberty, or property without due process of law – in no way prevents the executive branch from taking any lives that it, and it alone, decides to take. Asserting that the Fifth Amendment does not require judicial process, Holder informed the citizens of the republic that the only process that was due was whatever process they decided to use to declare someone a terrorist. The flags on display in the background were absolutely perfect.
Of course, there is a very good reason why right-wing propaganda merchants like the Leesburg Daily Commercial have had little to say about President Obama’s staggering disrespect for a document that he, of all people, as a former constitutional law professor, should be preserving and protecting. The current Administration has simply continued the War on Terror started by its predecessor, and taken it to new heights – or should we say depths? Just as the Bush Administration deployed legal scholars like John Yoo to cook up bizarre new readings of our jurisprudence that appeared to justify its war crimes, so the Obama Administration, carrying on the new American tradition of shredding sacred parchment, wrote its own secret memorandum to justify the deliberate assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki – an American citizen – in Yemen. At the risk of sounding as frantic as the author of the most recent Letter of the Week – which compared the presidencies of Obama and FDR to the rise of Hitler – we are skating on terribly thin ice as a nation when such sweeping powers go unchallenged by other institutions or the people themselves.
Against this portentous backdrop, the actions of local veterans – who are currently congratulating themselves for enforcing the flag code – are, I’m afraid to say, rather hollow gestures. If these gentlemen are as committed as they say they are to the values for which the American flag stands, then where was the protest against the unconstitutional killing of an American citizen? Where was the outrage against Eric Holder’s assertion of dictatorial powers? And since these gentlemen claim to be non-partisan in their sentiments, where were the rallies against President Bush’s unconstitutional, unnecessary, and unilateral war against Iraq – a country that had not attacked the United States and posed absolutely no threat thereto? Where were the denunciations of torture, which John McCain rightly condemned as violations of the Geneva Conventions that risked exposing our men to reprisals of a similar nature?
We give a lot of respect to our veterans, and rightly so, but no group should be utterly immune from criticism, especially when it lays claim to exceptional virtue. Soldiers, unfortunately, are conditioned to follow orders. In our system, the highest level of martial authority is the Commander-in-Chief. This framework predisposes military minds to defer to what the rest of us see as just another branch of the body politic, and may leave them susceptible to blind spots in the national security arena. For an aggressive military empire – which is what the United States has been for several decades – this deference is almost as useful as the carefully-stoked fears of a partially-informed public. The atrocities we need to fear are not woven from cloth, but they are committed in its name. And the true enemy of republican freedom is not local party hacks or their kitsch, but the far less accessible confluence of corporate greed and realpolitik that sees human lives and aspirations as mere data points in a long-term business plan.
Veterans who have fought for their country need to come back and fight for her again. But they must not assume that the men carrying flags are on the right side. No matter what the Daily Commercial says, the world isn’t that simple.