Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Digitus impudicus

There is currently a case in Oregon over the right to flip cops as many birds as we private citizens desire. In a nutshell, an Oregonian man is suing cops in Portland over what he calls “excessive traffic citations,” which he received because he exercised his 1st Amendment right to free speech digitally--he gives them the finger whenever possible.

The legal term for this, btw, is digitus impudicus, which is a fancy way of saying ‘the impudent finger.’ The case, legal experts suggest, could make its way to the Supreme Court.

The first recorded one-finger salute on record is from Emperor Augustus. Interesting.

Anyway, listening to a story about the Oregon case, I was reminded of the (currently dormant) fight over the burning of the American flag, which was pretty heated when I was in high school, and still flares up from time to time with little resulting from it other than a lot of non-burning flag waving on the right and a lot of sweaty hand-ringing on the left. Flag-burning was a-OK’d by the Supreme Court in 1989 (freedom of expression and all that), but Congress tried to by-pass the Supreme Court in 1990, then again in 1991, 1992, 1993, etc. Not even a Republican majority could get an out-right ban passed.

I burned an American flag once, in the most American way possible: I stole it from the flag pole of my high school, drove to a YMCA parking lot, poured Jack Daniels all over it, set it alight.

I didn’t act alone, although I’m not entirely sure who the other hooligans were or how we decided to do what we did. It must’ve been summer, because I remember being warm, and in shorts, and it must’ve been dark because we weren’t dumb enough to steal a flag from our high school in broad daylight (but I could be bestowing upon us a wisdom we had not yet earned. The passage of years does tend to improve the IQ of one’s younger self, and all that).

What I do remember is stealing the flag. It was left out over the weekend, at the top of a tall flag pole, its rope padlocked to the mast to prevent America-hating mischief-makers from seizing the rope and running the flag down the pole and absconding with it. Nothing says freedom like a padlocked American flag. But of course rope is rope, and easily cut, so we used a knife, cut away the padlock, and got the flag down.

Then we drove to the nearest parking lot, the YMCA across the street, and put the flag on the ground. Someone muttered, “Fuck you, George Bush,” and bent down with a lighter to the flag’s fabric. None of us knew just how many times the phrase, “Fuck you, George Bush,” would be coming out of our mouths over the next 20 years.

The flame from the lighter failed to do anything. The flag lay on the asphalt, unresponsive. Yet we were in high school in Alabama--one of us naturally had a bottle of Jack in our cars for emergencies. We were smart enough to know alcohol accelerates fire, and we had probably discovered this fact from either a Patrick Swayze movie or in an unfortunate flaming-shot incident. So we poured the bottle on top of the supine stars and stripes, struck the lighter (a Zippo), and put the flame to the flag’s edge again.

Whoosh. Right? A big whoosh. Eyebrow-scorching, 1st-Amendment affirming whoosh. The flag was in instant flames which shook giant plumes of black--yes, black, that should’ve been a clue--smoke out into the night.

Here’s how I felt, or how I think I felt, in that instant: free. It wasn’t that I had any anti-American sentiment; I just thought it was my right as an American to burn a flag if I wanted to. No sacred symbol, just a symbol. Nothing to pledge to or protect. A piece of cloth easily-replaced, since a flag is mass produced, and a person is not. Burning a flag is a reminder of an American soldier's undeniable, irreplaceable individuality, because the act puts a flag and a soldier in the same position of mortality.

Or something. Anyway, it seemed to me then that people spent too much time protecting flags, and not enough time protecting people. Except for actual soldiers, who spent a good deal of time protecting people and being told they were protecting flags.

So the flames did the dancing thing, and the black smoke thing, and we stood around transfixed, not talking. The fire began to die out. We expected to see charred cloth, but instead saw a red-white-and-blue, rectangular-shaped, bubbling puddle of melted plastic.

Our act of defiance: we’d managed to melt a fire-retardant flag. We'd burned the flag, but it survived all the same. Go us.

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