The New York Times has it all wrong. Not with its analysis but with the seriousness it takes an emissary tweet.

No one’s going to jail for burning the flag. There is no danger of losing one’s citizenship. It’s a non-issue at this point, settled 26 years ago by the Supreme Court. A tweet doesn’t undo that.

The idea of freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States, which is in turn is represented by the flag, as shown in the diagram below.


The substantive parts –ideas like rule of law and human rights–are where we should concentrate. The flag is simply a tangible representation of the abstract principles, and as such it is symbolic and of secondary interest. We may love the flag, respect the flag, find our hearts warmed by the flag…but we value the flag fundamentally because of the constitutional rights it represents. Let’s not put the symbol before the core idea.

100usd_new.pngA $100 bill is not valuable because of the paper or the image of Franklin, but because of the government’s promise to honor that debt, and its good track record of doing so.

Even if burning the flag insults or offends, the act is considered constitutionally protected free speech. If we prohibit flag burning, then we consequently diminish the right to free political speech. The irony is that the prohibition (which comes out of respect for the nation) damages one of the core freedoms, and the flag consequently means less. Honoring and guarding the right to free speech paradoxically means we must allow the flag to be burned.

Let’s stay focused

This is a distraction from the issues that all citizens should be thinking about.

How does the electorate ensure that its elected representatives act on its behalf? A conflict of interest exists when a person’s fiduciary responsibility is different from a personal interest. In other words, a conflict of interest is not the same as corruption, but may lead to corruption if one puts personal gain ahead of one’s responsibility to act for another’s benefit. And there are shades of gray: we know decision making is influenced even we are not consciously aware of it.

So let us move on from flag burning and continue to think about conflicts of interest. It’s more abstract–and less juicy–than flag burning, but far more important.

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