Bear with me as I attempt to defend what appears to be, on its face, indefensible.
When Scott Compton, a high-school English teacher in South Carolina, wanted to impress his students with the remarkable freedoms that our Constitution bestows upon us, he drove the point home by stomping on an American flag in front of his classroom.
The superintendent of Compton's school district is recommending that Compton be fired.
Personally, I'm not fond of these kinds of histrionic demonstrations for instructional purposes. I've never been impressed by history teachers who dress up like Ben Franklin or Paul Revere for dramatic impact.
On the other hand, have you ever tried to maintain the attention of a group of high-school freshmen and sophomores long enough to explain a notion as abstract as the one that Compton was working toward, that ideas and principles are more important than symbols?
Symbols only represent other things and are not, themselves, sacred relics. Compton was attempting to demonstrate this essential principle of our freedom and reduce some of our confusion about it. In fact, I asked my college freshmen what they thought about this case, and many of them assumed that desecration of the American flag is illegal. It's not.
In fact, the U.S. is close to unique in this regard. In France and Turkey, a flag desecrater can go to prison for six months, and in Germany for up to five years. Many other countries have similar strictures against the desecration of their flags and other national symbols. Wikipedia reports that in 2008 a Mexican was convicted of desecrating a flag in a poem.
But to its credit, our Supreme Court in 1989 invalidated state laws that forbade desecration of the flag, ruling that flag-burning, for example, is a speech act protected by the First Amendment. The relevant case is Texas v. Johnson, and the oral argument before the court, easily found online, brilliantly demonstrates the careful, scrupulous parsing of the law required to reach a conclusion that might seem counterintuitive to many of us. After all, if we value our freedoms, then we should respect their symbols.
Perhaps we should, but to require respect by law is reminiscent of the often-quoted but possibly apocryphal paradox that emerged from the Vietnam War: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
That's the trouble with symbols. It's easy for us to confuse symbols with the things they represent. That's probably why the Ten Commandments include "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." Before long, you're worshipping the cross instead of the Christ.
Furthermore, we have a dangerous tendency to turn symbols into coercive weapons. We imagine that our civic liturgy, the Pledge of Allegiance, was born along with our nation in 1776, but actually it was developed in 1898, partly as a xenophobic reaction to a burgeoning influx of exotic, swarthy immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and partly as an effort to sell more flags to schools.
Before long, though, citizens like Jehovah's Witnesses, whose scruples prohibited them pledging allegiance to anything but God, were being ostracized, beaten and fired from their jobs. A few were murdered.
Which brings us back to Compton. I'm not saying that he made the best instructional choice by stomping on a flag in front of his class. But the subject of the day was not respect; it was freedom. And I suspect that this is one lesson his class will never forget.
Firing Compton might make his superintendent and the school board feel more patriotic, but they'll be demonstrating a misunderstanding of a basic constitutional principle.
And they'll be teaching Compton's students another lesson, as well: that our freedoms are as ephemeral and vulnerable as our flags, which are, after all, only cloth that stands for something much more important.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)