On a hot day in early July, driving south along
Interstate 95 just outside of Portland, Maine, I find
myself listening to the colorful jabberwocky of
conservative radio. The announcer, like so many of his
kind, speaks rhythmically and insistently, artfully
using cascading sound bites to drive home his points.
And as with all conservative radio announcers, he is
angry today, angry with opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning of the American flag.
Predictably, he tars Democrats - and their nefarious,
liberal fellow travelers - with ingrained, even
inbred, opposition to such an "important"
constitutional amendment. "What kind of American," he
shouts in mock rage, "defends the burning of Old
Normally immune to such bait, but weary perhaps from
driving, I succumb to the taunt and answer his
question aloud. "Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine,
Adams," I say, "and every other Founding Father, you
twit." Not surprisingly, the announcer doesn't respond
my answer, or to my name-calling. He has his own
answer, characterizing those opposed to this amendment
as un-American defenders of everything dark and foul
Now, I know that this cynical - and cyclical -
promotion of a flag burning amendment to the U.S.
Constitution just means another election season has
arrived, and that Republican poll numbers must be
down, because when Republican poll numbers are down,
moral and emotional wedge issues come up. Consider the Republican amendment proposals to ban same-sex marriage, to gain prayer in schools - and, of course, to ban flag burning.
And every time the flag burning issue reappears, I
muse on the irony of it. Old Glory, as the Republicans
and Democrats both argue, is indeed the very symbol of
our country. But the efforts to create an amendment
outlawing its burning ironically separates Old Glory
from the United States Constitution that gave it
Even the history of the name "Old Glory" drives home
One day in 1831, Captain William Driver of Salem, Massachusetts, of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett, raised a beautifully crafted, twenty-four star flag given to him years earlier by friends. As he prepared for departure that morning, the flag snapped straight in the stiff Atlantic breeze. As those around him admired the waving flag, Captain Driver famously
exclaimed: "Old Glory!"
And that name for Captain Driver's flag stuck.
In 1837, when Captain Driver retired, he brought Old
Glory with him to his new home in Nashville,
Tennessee. And like the locals of Salem, the locals of Nashville came to know Captain Driver's beautiful flag as "Old Glory."
Years later, when America found itself convulsed in
the horrible divisions of the Civil War, Tennessee
seceded from the Union. Local Confederate rebels
understood the symbolic power of Captain Driver's Old
Glory - of Union and the U.S. Constitution - and
quickly sought to find and destroy Captain Driver's
flag. But despite numerous searches, they could never
Then, in February 1862, Union troops captured
Nashville and symbolically raised an American flag in
the town center. Jubilant local folks remembered Old
Glory and asked Captain Driver if the flag still
existed. The wily Captain Driver smiled and returned
to his home where he carefully unstitched his bed
comforter. There, tucked between the covers of the
comforter, was Old Glory.
The Captain returned to the town center with the flag,
and to the rising cheers and salutes of the locals and
of the Sixth Ohio Regiment of the Union Army, Captain
Driver replaced the soldiers' flag with Old Glory.
Members of the Sixth Ohio Regiment were so moved by
the unifying power of that simple flag, that they
began to speak of all American flags as Old Glory. And
the name stuck.
And so, almost 150 years later, in the midst of
another period of America divided, it is worth
remembering that, on that day in 1862, when America
faced untenable division, Old Glory became the symbol
of America united. I say it is worth remembering
because, ironically, President Bush and his Rovian
Republicans are doing exactly what the Confederate
forces did: trying to use Old Glory to divide America.
Listening to the ranting of the conservative radio
announcer, I consider this: by using a flag burning
amendment to divide Americans, the Rovian Republicans
are using the physical Old Glory to undermine the
fundamental rights enshrined in the symbolic Old Glory
- that is, the rights enshrined in the United States Constitution, among them these: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
By focusing our attention on the physical protection
of Old Glory, the Rovian Republicans are changing the
unifying meaning of symbolic Old Glory. If it works,
we may well lose the meaning of America. And listening
to the ranting of the conservative radio announcer, I
consider this, too: this may well be what President
Bush and his Rovian Republicans want.
Steven Laffoley (email@example.com) is an
American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is
the author of "Mr. Bush, Angus and Me: Notes of An American-Canadian in the Age of Unreason."