“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Doesn't anyone teach painting anymore?

Doesn’t anyone teach painting anymore?

It’s a basic principle, one that we sometimes take for granted, sometimes debate hotly, often misinterpret and unfortunately, are periodically called to shed blood to defend.  For me, the flag is the symbol of everything good that we cherish, or should hold dear about this country and the Constitution, especially the right to free speech.  For others, and here I am unfortunately speaking about other citizens of the US, the flag represents an evil, a shame in their eyes and makes a suitable target for showing their displeasure with the policies or even the history of this great nation.  The dichotomy I face is the desire to defend this right of expression at the same time I defend the symbol which reminds me of these rights, as well as the sacrifices made for me by others who came before me.

Teacher Shand Stamper has irritated the hell out of me, forcing me into a Sophie’s choice, a principle or a symbol that I hold dear.  Alas, I must choose and I choose the principle over the symbol.  But I do not choose lightly.

When Stamper, an art teacher at McCracken County High School assigned the project entitled “The Proper Way to Display an American Flag”, students were supposed to write comments on how they felt as they stood on the flag.  Maybe I missed something in my high school art class, but frescoes and Rubin’s were what we were asked to write about when not painting or ruining pottery, and the only discomfort I felt was caused by failure to master free-hand.  But hey, art is, I guess, supposed to be edgy and provocative and what better way to show you’re hip and progressive than to use art to insult an awful lot of people and demean the memory of those who died so you could prove to others that, well… you’re hip and progressive.  Ok, got it.  Just don’t sugar-coat what you’re trying to do.  I mean, come on, it’s your right to free expression, but let’s dispense with all the “I love the flag and the nation it stands for” bullshit;  I’d have a hell of a lot more respect for you and your freedom of expression if you’d just stand up and be the hypocrite you really are.  You hate this country but you’re damned happy it defends your right to let everyone know you do.  Pretty handy, beats trying that in North Korea or in some far-flung, third-world shit-hole you probably admire and wish we would emulate.  No, I’m not saying “love it or leave it” or “get the hell out” or “don’t let the door hit” you, although I’d have the right to.  And I really, really want to.

No, what I’m saying is that cowards like you never lived in a part of the world where you would be summarily executed, or “disappeared” for this type of display; never went to fight for yours, or anyone else’s free expression against a tyrant or a dictator.  No, the battle you wage is how to make yourself feel relevant and superior, fighting bored teens who yawn in your class in the dangerous jungles of American halls of education, where your right to be a pompous ass is wholly defended by others of far greater courage and conviction than you have.  Many I might add, who are no longer with us as well as those who carry the physical and emotional scars which you belittle with your attempt at ego-inflation.

I will defend your right to this.  It was reaffirmed in Texas vs. Johnson when the court held that Johnson’s conviction for flag desecration was inconsistent with the Constitution, with Justice Brennan writing the majority opinion; ““Preserving the flag as a symbol of nationhood and national unity” was “related ‘to the suppression of free expression.’” And even after congress passed the Flag Desecration act in 1989, again the court reaffirmed their Johnson decision in United States Vs. Eichman, in this case, holding that “prosecution for burning the flag” in violation of the act was still inconsistent with the first amendment. The Courts states;  “The Government concedes, as it must, that appellees’ flag-burning constituted expressive conduct, and this Court declines to reconsider its rejection in Johnson of the claim that flag-burning as a mode of expression does not enjoy the First Amendment’s full protection.”

Pretty clear.  You have your right to crap on a symbol that stands for your right to do so.  Have at it.  However, I don’t quite think you have the right to do it in a public school, persuading children to follow your merry trip down “look-at-me” lane.  You were on the public dime, in a publicly funded building.  You wish to display your contempt for this country?  Show your real art skills and do it in the middle of the street on your own time.  Let’s see you feed yourself with your art. Maybe it’s going to be lost on those who will pillory me for that statement but we are talking about a building where we used to recite the pledge of allegiance; now, because of self-important pieces of refuse such as this, we no longer can as it may offend others.  Ironic that we should reaffirm your right to piss on the flag while those offended need to keep their mouths shut; conversely, those who choose to honor the flag are held to be infringing on you.

You have your freedom of speech, I have mine.  I’ll salute the flag every time I can and be proud to share that with others around me, remembering those who whose coffins were draped with it, the price they paid for defending what it symbolized.  And I hope with great hope that while you’re back-pedaling, offering the limp explanations and “heartfelt” mea culpa to reassure us that you “love our flag and the nation it stands for”, the local citizens who pay you to teach art express their rights as well.