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Flag-Burning

Not to question the motives or earnestness of those good people who engage in it, but doesn’t publicly burning the American flag in protest of government policy seem just a tad too….well, self-aggrandizing? A tad too self-congratulatory? Given that little or nothing is being risked by these “arsonists,” doesn’t it even reek a bit of smugness?

Moreover, besides backfiring by allowing the very government that one opposes to opportunistically portray these flag-burners as “traitors,” ingrates, or nutcases, the symbolic gesture itself carries no real weight.

Other than demonstrating to people of like mind that you’re thoroughly pissed off, what does this act of desecration accomplish? (“Hey, look at what I did. See how outraged I am?”) At the very minimum, flag-burning shouldn’t be an end in itself. If anything, it should serve as a prelude to a more deadly form of civil disobedience. On its best day, flag-burning should be treated as no more than foreplay.

In 1964, folksinger Joan Baez protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by doing something that was not only terribly risky but something that could, in principle, actually lead to a change in public policy had it caught on. Arguing that her tax dollars were being used to underwrite an immoral and unwinnable war, Baez refused to pay 60% of her federal income tax. It was a noble act, and given that it occurred in 1964, Baez was way ahead of the pack.

Not only a noble act, but a potentially effective one. Consider the spectacle of 100,000 anti-war protesters burning flags in America’s streets, and then compare that to 100,000 protesters defiantly refusing to file their income tax returns on the grounds that the revenue would be used to finance the war. Refusing to pay their taxes, and being willing to suffer the consequences.

This brand of protest is not new. In 1846, H.D. Thoreau was arrested and placed in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, protesting, among other things, the Mexican-American War and what he saw as the westward expansion of slavery. Thoreau’s defiance meant something. His act was more than cosmetic, more than merely “symbolic,” more than an exercise in self-gratification. It was civil disobedience in its purest form.

Back to Joan Baez. While her act of criminal defiance did not result in her being imprisoned (not on this occasion), she was nonetheless forced to pay back, on the installment plan, every last nickel she owed Uncle Sam. So there was no storybook ending. The fledgling “No Tax, No War” movement never really took hold. No big surprise why it didn’t.

As it was explained to me by a professor at a local university, the underlying premise—the organizing principle that was supposed to drive this movement forward—was jury nullification.

A million Americans defiantly refuse to pay taxes and give as their reason their opposition to the Vietnam War. These war protesters then willingly accept being arrested for the crime. Indeed, they insist on being formally charged and judged in a court of law.

Believing that the majority of the country was morally and philosophically opposed to the Vietnam War, the protesters put their faith in the belief that no jury of their peers would dare find them guilty, even though what they had done was clearly a violation of the law. Jury nullification. Controlled anarchy. Power to the people. Yeah.

Alas, apathy, fear, ignorance, inertia, lack of leadership, and the embrace of false hopes all led to the jury nullification movement emerging stillborn. That said, one can’t even imagine such a movement being launched today.

What would the cause have to be in order for a person to risk withholding tax dollars today? What would be the focus? Syria? Afghanistan? Fake news? Russian mischief? The Wall? The fat one-percent? Forget about it.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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