In the 19th century the poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a corny ballad memorializing the bravery of a Union loyalist called Barbara Frietchie during the American Civil War. ‘ “Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag”, she said’ when confronted by a hostile band of Confederate soldiers. Well, if I had to choose between betraying my flag or myself, I hope I should have the sense to do the former. But judging from the recent hysteria here over flagburning, there are quire a few modern-day Barbara Frietchies in my midst, especially in Congress.
It all began when Gregory ‘Joey’ Johnson set fire to the Stars and Stripes to protest about something or other at last year’s Republican convention, and was subsequently convicted of flag-defilement under a Texas statute. His lawyers appealed on this decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which last summer ruled 5–4 that burning the flag was a form of symbolic speech and was therefore protected by the Bill of Rights. This provoked near-universal howls of protest from Washington politicians, who no doubt recalled how George Bush had used the pledge-of-allegiance issue to cudgel the hapless Michael Dukakis in the last presidential campaign.