top of page

Burn the Television

Flag-burning excites Illinois pols

Illinois Times

June 28, 1990

Whether one lives as a contented citizen of Illinois depends on whether one is heartened or dismayed by the fact that the state’s congressional delegation was evenly split in this vote to make desecrating the American flag unconstitutional. How such a vote might go if protesters starting burning soybeans I don’t want to guess.

The actual topic addressed here is political speech. Don't get me started.


The vote was taken and the tally was gratifyingly in favor of common sense: 177 members of the U.S. House voted against a proposed flag desecration amendment to the Constitution and 254 voted in favor, leaving the measure 34 short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Ordinarily the noise of politicians prattling on about the flag lulls me to sleep, as one is lulled by the chatter of loons on a distant lake. But any time I hear the likes of Ed Madigan talk about improving the Constitution, I am jolted wide awake.


The State Journal-Register sampled the opinions of area politicians on the flag issue with dismaying results. Doc Davidson for example railed against "rabble-rousing mobs" who burn flags, which struck me as confused on two counts. For one thing, mobs more often carry flags than burn them; for another, it doesn't take a mob to rouse a rabble—usually a single politician is sufficient for the job.


Among Illinois's twenty-two representatives, half voted in favor of the anti-desecration amendment. Most represent either Downstate or heavily ethnic Chicago districts whose residents' views on freedom of expression have been forged by their association with the labor union, Old World churches, and the VFW lodge. The issue seems certain to come up again, probably in this fall's congressional elections. "No" votes are expected to be used to slander incumbents, especially Republicans who thus advanced common sense and prudence against the wishes of George and the Rotarian right.


I sat down to write this column last week, when it looked as if the amendment bill would pass, and planned an eloquent rebuttal to the arguments being advanced by its proponents. I did not make that rebuttal because I discovered there were no actual arguments being advanced. The dispute did not pit left against right, for instance. Good conservatives were just as appalled by the idea of tinkering with the Bill of Rights for such trivial reasons as were civil libertarians. (Even the State Journal-Register editorialized against it.)


The contest did not pit ideology against ideology or class against class or religion against religion. It did pit the knowing against the ignorant and—here I admit to stretching a point—the printed word against TV. The constituency for the flag amendment by and large does not read newspapers, in fact does not deal comfortably with the system of fact, logic, and argument that the printed word has made possible. The informed know that most of the very few flags that have been burned were burned for the benefit of TV, and most of them were burned to protest flag-burning statutes rather than any U.S. government action—incidents, in short, that hardly constitute an incendiary movement. To the millions of adults who know of the world only what they see on TV, however, the nation is in the grip of an epidemic of symbolic arson. In the disconnected world of the TV newscast, a flag-burning looms as vividly as an earthquake or an assassination; a hundred showings of a single flag being burned are remembered as a hundred flags being burned.


TV doesn't distort reality so much as it replaces it, as Neil Postman explained in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. TV is the source of a new philosophy of rhetoric, and has changed the language of public discourse. Images have largely replaced words as the currency of our political exchanges; one of the results is that we now have emotions about events rather than opinions.


Postman describes TV's language as simplistic, non-historical, and non-contextual, which is his way of saying that what's on TV does not connect the viewer to anything but itself. The triumph of TV (as a language, not just as an industry) over the arts, sports, and education is nearly perfect. It is changing newspapers and magazines as well, the way an errant gene changes a cell. Print people decry this, as I am doing here, but seldom appreciate the depth of TV's transformations of politics because they tend personally to be immune to it.


Politicians know better because, unlike print reporters and editors, they dwell in both worlds. Government remains a realm of the word, a place where thinking and doing (however corrupt or misdirected it is in other ways) are still mostly processes characterized by continuity, connection, and coherence. When it comes to politics, however, TV (as I have complained before in this space) is not just a corruption of the process but the process itself.


Surveys have confirmed what too many print people refused to credit at the time, which is that most of what most voters knew about Michael Dukakis in 1988 they learned from Bush's TV commercials, and that very many people today (especially young people, one of whom said just this in my hearing last year) consider themselves informed about a race if they've "seen all the commercials." Reagan was a success as a president even though he was a disaster as a chief executive because he knew instinctively that credibility matters more than the truth.


Print people continue to dismiss TV as an inferior version of the newspaper when in fact it is something much more potent. Postman explains that a politician doesn't just offer viewers an image of himself in his TV commercials; politicians have always done that, no matter what the medium. What's happening now is that he's offering himself as an image of the viewer. In the case of the flag bill, the successful candidate will be the one who offers himself as an open vessel into which the viewer can pour his anxieties about change.


Nor does TV merely lend itself to exploitation by politicians with an agenda. TV generates its own agendas. It is something of a sociological truism by now that people who watch a lot of TV's zoomed up, quick-cut version of the world perceive it as a place more violent, more dangerous, more conflicted in every way than it really is. The effect of TV is not informedness but fearfulness. The New York Times' Tom Wicker was one of the pundits who pointed out that the flag amendment was a manifestation of a revived politics of fearfulness. Fearfulness is not a new ingredient in our politics; fearfulness without cause may be. It is not fear of opposing ideologies or religious beliefs or class competition that animates people. It isn't vagrant opinions people have grown fearful of (quick! What do flag-burners burn flags for?); what disturbs them is that some people have vagrant opinions—not difference so much as differentness.


TV's saving grace as a political agenda-setter is that it leaves the public memory no more enduring than last night's newscast. Several congressmen confessed that they had dared to vote "no" last week because the mail from back home demanding flag protection was unexpectedly light. Had the public come to its senses? Had they forgotten about the issue? Neither. They've simply become bored by it, just as they became bored by gun control and immigration and tax reform and a dozen other issues.


This doesn't mean that the no-voters are not vulnerable to challengers' thirty-second TV spot ads at campaign time. Rather than allow government to be held hostage to TV, our representatives might seek to ban the thirty-second political ad from TV. Even some no-voters will object to this plan on principle, seeing such a ban as an abridgement of free speech. I think one can make nearly as good an argument that the thirty-second TV spot—which is inherently distorting and thus destructive of intelligible discourse—may be opposed on the same grounds as incitement to riot, both being manifest threats to public well-being.


The test is whether abridging one form of expression increases the opportunities for expression overall, as happens when an audience is denied its "freedom" to shout down a speaker with whom it does not agree. Taking political advocacy out of the thirty-second spot and putting it in longer commercials, talk shows, and other forums will have just such a happy effect. Banning the desecration of debate by TV ads— there's a cause worth risking one's career for. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page