Burn the Television
Flag-burning excites Illinois pols
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. ●