Burning Flags or Disco Records Is an Act of Freedom

If you own the flag, you can burn it.” This point is simple to grasp and so very important to understand if you care about the most important foundation of individual liberty: property rights.

The issue of flag burning or desecration has long been a hot button, especially for the so-called “patriotic” flag defenders. “You cannot burn, spoil, or otherwise abuse our beloved symbol of freedom,” say the devoted flag bearers. “It is our symbol to uphold, cherish, and defend.”

The idea that we should ignore property rights in favor of emotional or symbolic privileges reminds me of the t-shirts and patches that the “patriotic” Harley-Davidson riders – with whom I ride – often wear. These patches, shirts, or even helmet stickers have the American flag on them, and beneath the flag it says, “Try to burn this one a**hole.” Well, no, one shouldn’t try to burn and thus destroy another person’s property – whether it is a shirt, helmet sticker, or otherwise. But then again, the fatal failure of this argument against flag-burning is complete ignorance of property rights in favor of an appeal to some strange notion of collective emotional rights. So, to the unapprised, there is no difference between burning a flag that I purchased and therefore own, or burning a flag that is on a t-shirt or patch that you own and wear. But clearly, the first act involves the disposition of one’s own property in a manner that is non-violent and does not cause one to trespass on another’s property or aggress against their person. The latter act, however, would suggest that an aggressor would have to act out in violence against the patch or t-shirt wearer, who would thus be physically harmed – which would be the likely result of one burning a piece of clothing that someone is wearing on his body.

Some people think that burning an American flag is distasteful or offensive. I am neither offended nor do I opine good or bad as to “taste.” The state’s representational sewn cloth has no emotional chokehold on me. Nor do I view it as anything more than a piece of cloth, a material good, that someone valued enough to warrant its production and sale at a profit. I do not subscribe to the nationalist passion that feeds the flag frenzy and upholds the nation’s symbol of unity as something deeply personal and thus worthy of “protection” via an Amendment to the Constitution. After all, your flag is yours, my flag is mine, and any intimate feelings, symbolism, or respect can be conveyed by each flag owner upon their own flag. Sure, you can love or hate my flag, along with any of my other property – as long as your emotions do not translate into unwanted trespass upon that property. You cannot, however, “protect” my property from me in terms of what I choose to do with it. Such “protection” is a clear violation of my property rights.

How is it that cloth sewn in a manner – with a figurative design and colors – that symbolizes nationalism must be handled or disposed of in a very particular manner as determined by government authorities? For instance, U.S. Federal law has it that we must handle and use an American flag with a very precise approach and dispose of that same flag in a manner that is “dignified,” preferably in a reverential, ceremonial burning. Thus political protest against one’s own flag does not qualify as suitable disposal.

Yet, the plain fact is that once I purchase a material good – such as a flag or a bottle of wine – I have lawfully engaged in a voluntary transaction wherein I then own that good and may use or discard it in any method I wish, as long as I do not violate any person or property in the course of my use or disposal. In fact, I can burn my flag and smash my $100 bottle of Kistler Chardonnay, but not as an uninvited trespasser in your home.

How can such a simple concept be so twisted and mutilated to the point where, to most people, destroying material property that you own becomes a crime against all of humanity? The Supreme Court believes the act of burning an American flag is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. In the famous Texas v Johnson case, where Gregory Johnson burned a flag in the streets outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Justice William Brennan, who delivered the opinion of the Court, stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

The state of Texas had tried to crucify Gregory Johnson because his disposal of the government’s symbol on cloth was “a severe act of physical abuse of the flag carried out in a way likely to be offensive.” Indeed it was an “act,” or an action, and not speech. But the best that the Supreme Court of the United States could do was to uphold the right to burn the flag – or any flag – as a form of “symbolic speech.”

Yes, it is said that Johnson “accepted an American flag handed to him by a fellow protestor who had taken it from a flagpole outside one of the targeted buildings.” If that is indeed the circumstances, then why wasn’t the case a much more simple process to convict the thief who actually stole the property? No one cared about the actual property theft and destruction because there could be no political-nationalist agenda behind such an act. Justice Rehnquist filed a dissenting opinion in which he says, “It was Johnson’s use of this particular symbol, and not the idea that he sought to convey by it or by his many other expressions, for which he was punished.”

Justice Rehnquist, in his dissent, also engages the glories of Abraham Lincoln and the defeat of the South by the mighty Union as a reason to uphold the historical greatness that is represented by the flag. He states, “Millions and millions of Americans regard it with an almost mystical reverence regardless of what sort of social, political, or philosophical beliefs they may have.” What does another’s reverence have to do with your rights to your own property?

Justice Stevens, in his dissent from the Court’s opinion, also appeals to the historical significance of the flag:

The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln, schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington, the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan, and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. If those ideas are worth fighting for – and our history demonstrates that they are – it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.

I respectfully dissent.

So what does disco music have to do with all of this?

When I was a very young kid, there was this thing called the disco revolution. Fond memories, indeed. Disco music was immensely popular, but you weren’t supposed to like it because it wasn’t “hip.” Even if you did like it, you didn’t dare admit it. Well I loved all kinds of music, including disco. The local hard rock radio station, WRIF, came out with this publicity stunt called D.R.E.A.D. – Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco. Jim Johnson (JJ) and the Morning Crew were sworn to uphold the conditions set forth by D.R.E.A.D – no listening to disco records or disco stations; no wearing zodiac jewelry or 3-piece suits; and the non-violent elimination of disco from the face of the earth. The listeners loved it, and D.R.E.A.D. fever swept the under-25 set in the city.

My older brothers became D.R.E.A.D. members, and accordingly, I became a card-carrying member as well. Hey, I had a Bee Gees t-shirt, but that wasn’t as cool as being like my older brothers. In the spirit of WRIF traditions, rockers all over the Detroit area burned their disco records and called the station to proudly boast about the latest disco record that turned to ashes. I would join my brothers and friends in the ritualistic burnings of disco records, the first such experience being in the backyard, when the parents weren’t home. The record was “Saturday Night Fever.” We butchered, beat, stomped on, and burned that puppy. Records don’t burn too well, so we ended up with a massively warped album that was broken to pieces and lying all over the place.

In essence, it doesn’t matter how or why you dispose of your property. If you choose to dispose of that which you own, your means of doing so, along with your political philosophy, rage, or emotional state, are entirely irrelevant to the act itself. If I did value the symbolic or historical nature of the standard American flag, my affection would be intimate, or directed specifically toward that particular piece of property which embodies my worship. I would relish my symbol and my property without regard to the property of others.

In the end, angrily desecrating your own flag is like burning your disco records in your backyard or furiously throwing your phone against your living room wall. The historical significance, colors, symbol, or mystical reverence of the property in question is irrelevant when the focal point is absolute property rights. For this reason, the American flag and Saturday Night Fever are both assigned the identical status in a propertarian order: legitimate property belonging to the owner to worship or burn as he sees fit. What’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine.

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