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Flag Is More Than Just Cloth--or Cake : ‘You can no more destroy the flag than you can destroy the Constitution by burning a copy of the Constitution. The flag is fireproof.’

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All across these United States today, people are carving up Old Glory. On our nation’s 219th birthday, folks are cutting it to pieces--then eating it.

It’s the frosting on a cake, or perhaps an ice cream creation. One recent Fourth of July, a friend smoothed whipped cream over cake, then carefully laid out stripes of sliced strawberries and sprinkled a field of blueberries in the corner. She saw it in a magazine. It would not be surprising to learn that, somewhere, some Betsy Ross of the kitchen has created one from Jell-O or jelly beans.

And in this sweet land of liberty, it’s safe to say that many members of Congress want to have their flag and eat it too--literally and otherwise.

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These would be the politicians who are taking the honorable symbol of American unity and, with either the best or worst intentions, exploiting it to promote a dishonorable, divisive sport of I-love-our-country-more-than-you-do.

These are the Congress members and other pols who unthinkingly--or cravenly--push the proposed constitutional amendment that says: “The Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

Last week, 312 members of the House of Representatives wrapped themselves in this measure, while 120 declined. The yes votes included 219 Republicans and 93 Democrats, and the nays numbered 107 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one Independent. The Valley delegation split 2-2, with Republicans Carlos J. Moorhead and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon voting yes and Democrats Howard L. Berman and Anthony C. Beilenson voting no. To become the law of the land, the proposed amendment requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which won’t be easy, and then must be ratified by the legislatures of 39 of the 50 states within a seven-year period.

No doubt many Congress members voted with heartfelt emotions and the best intentions. And no doubt Republican strategists are delighted to employ Old Glory as a wedge issue.

Funny thing is, flag-burning isn’t a burning issue these days. This isn’t the ‘60s, when an unpopular war popularized this form of protest. American lawmakers never felt the need for such a law until 1968, when a federal statute against flag desecration was adopted amid the emotions of the times. When a Texas case brought this law before the Supreme Court 21 years later, it was found to be unconstitutional--an infringement on First Amendment rights of free speech and expression.

The Supreme Court thus reaffirmed values that were implicit during the first 192 years of U. S. history. Add it all together, you find that--although a wide majority of Congress backs the amendment now--American history shows 198 years against it and only 21 in favor.

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Yet the flag desecration debate is back, distracting elected officials from such matters as how to streamline government, reduce deficits and battle crime, not to mention such thorny issues as affirmative action and immigration reform. This is the serious politics of governance, not the politics of symbolism. And that’s what the House vote represents--a triumph of symbolism over substance.

Symbolism may be why much of the debate in Congress was so comically philosophical, focusing on the meaning of the words flag and desecration. One congressman displayed a pair of boxer shorts with a Stars and Stripes design. Might this be considered a flag? “If underpants turn out to be flags,” Time magazine’s Barbara Ehrenreich notes, “even a small lapse of personal hygiene may constitute a punishable offense.”

The trouble with “desecration” is twofold. One is that it’s vague. Must little cloth or plastic flags passed out at Fourth of July celebrations or political conventions be preserved forever more, or can they be tossed out with the trash?

The other problem is that “desecration” has religious overtones, implying that Old Glory is a kind of religious icon. Spiritual zeal and patriotic zeal go hand in hand. If somebody objects to an Old Glory cake, just say, “Excuse me, we’re taking Holy American Communion.”

But semantics are a distraction. The principle is clear under a Constitution that promotes freedom. If Joe Schmoe damages or otherwise “desecrates” an American flag--providing the flag is Joe Schmoe’s property, and he doesn’t violate fire codes or other laws in the process--he has every right to do so. The same First Amendment that protects his rights gives us the right to call him a jerk, a creep--or even burn him in effigy.

Under authoritarian regimes, such protesters wouldn’t just face social scorn, but official punishment. It’s odd that Congress wants to promote this sort of nationalism. This would elevate flag-burners to the status of political prisoners, which is precisely what flag-burners would want.

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An anti-flag-desecration amendment would be a sign of weakness. In 1989, essayist Hendrik Hertzberg put it this way:

“The flag, the American flag, is an abstraction--a certain arrangement of stars, stripes and colors--that exists (a) in the realm of Platonic ideals and (b) in the minds and hearts of people. To say this is not to denigrate the flag; on the contrary, it is to place the flag where it belongs, in a higher realm of existence than the material. A flag, any particular flag, is merely a copy. You can no more destroy the flag than you can destroy the Constitution by burning a copy of the Constitution.

“The flag is fireproof. The Constitution is more vulnerable. It can be damaged quite effectively--by amending it in ways foreign to its spirit and hostile to its purposes.”

And if that isn’t desecration, what is?

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Please include a phone number. Address TimesLink or Prodigy e-mail to YQTU59A ( via the Internet: YQTU59A@prodigy.com).

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