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  • Old Glory and Free Speech

    • Posted on Jul 03, 2016
    Here's today's (July 3) Courier column.  Watching the salt tide wash away a sand graffiti version of an American flag on a beach got me to thinking:  Should that sand flag-scratcher be prosecuted for desecration? 

    Recently I was moseying along an Atlantic beach at low tide when I came upon an American flag scratched out in the sand with a stick. 

     It had the familiar outline—the box in the upper left with stars, horizontal stripes on the right and bottom, the whole sitting in a rectangle.  Well done, I thought, probably by a patriotic beach-walker with a sharp stick.  

     I knew that graffiti-sand flag wouldn’t last past noon, thanks to the approaching tide. 

     Imagine if someone had placed a Wal-Mart American flag there instead, and tacked it down with sticks.  The saltwater tide would inundate it daily.     

     Trouble. People would complain that a “real” flag was being desecrated by saltwater and carelessness.  No such problem with the sand flag.   

     That flag was a mere scrawl, a graffiti that any smart 10-year-old could have done. 

     So should patriots take “real” flags more seriously than sand flags?  Should anyone be fined or jailed for “desecrating” store-bought versions of Old Glory? 

     No.  They should not. If desecrating a flag depends on the elaborateness and detail with which the flag is created, it’s nonsense. 

     The flag serves as the country’s logo, and worldwide, the Stars and Stripes symbolizes what the country stands for.  Nothing more, nothing less.

     If this seems like common sense, point your browser to “Flag Desecration Amendment” and check out the serious attempts to outlaw flag destruction. 

     In the late 1960s, legislators from practically every state as well as federal legislators were rabidly opposed to flag burnings by Vietnam War protestors. 

    It infuriated them to see their beloved Stars and Stripes trampled and burned. 

     If you think the country’s divided now, a half-century ago we were burning down buildings—not just flags—and police and the National Guard were beating and shooting students for marching and protesting.  Now we merely carp and grouse on the Internet.  

     When the so-called “Flag Burning Amendment” to the constitution went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, the decision split 5-4 in favor of “desecration” being free speech.  And therefore perfectly legal.  

     And get this—Justice Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, insisting that public
    desecration of the flag was in fact protected the by the First Amendment.    

    Still, the idea didn’t die.  The U.S. Senate brought it up in again as recently as 2006.  It lost by one vote.   Basically, lawmakers wanted to give the courts power to punish anyone who damaged the flag in any way. 

    That piece of colored cloth, in other words, would be treated like a powerful religious relic, with the government behaving like an avenging church.    

     There’s a crucial irony here.  You can’t damage a country’s freedom by hurting its logo.  The only way to inflict real damage is by curtailing freedom of speech.  

     That’s what anti-desecration laws would do, as the Supreme Court wisely declared.    

    Defacing or destroying any representation of the U.S. flag does nothing whatsoever to harm the country for which it stands, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. 

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Politics
    • Holidays
  • Happy Father Figure's Day

    • Posted on Jun 19, 2016
    Here's today's (6-19) Courier column.  It celebrates fathers who weren't birth fathers--father figures, whom we all remember and appreciate.  


    We all know father figures: Father time, godfathers, the father of radio, computing, broadcasting, psychology, (etc.) and the Father who art in heaven.  

     They’re different from mother figures, earth mothers, mothers of invention, Mary, mother of Jesus, who helped save mankind from mother Eve’s mistake. 

     Mother figures nurture, advise, understand, and love unconditionally.  
    Here’s a surprise:  So do father figures.  They bring different perspectives—feminine and masculine—but they all nurture and advise.   

     Since it’s Father’s Day, let’s celebrate father figures. 

     I’ve become acutely aware of fathers and father figures while reading Thomas Wolfe’s epic American novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.”   Well before WWII, Wolfe wrote bedrock truths about American life that still resonate. 

     We read Wolfe now because a New York editor, Maxwell Perkins, discovered Wolfe’s writing genius, and helped him shape sprawling masses of prose (Wolfe wrote constantly and compulsively) into novels that changed American literature. 

     Incidentally, don’t confuse Thomas Wolfe with Tom Wolfe, a contemporary writer most famous for  “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff.” They’re both important writers, but reside on separate literary planets.  

     In Thomas Wolfe’s third novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Wolfe calls Perkins “Foxhall Edwards” and writes, “[Wolfe] knew that Foxhall believed in him, and the editor’s faith and confidence, coming as it had come, at a time when [Wolfe] had given up all hope, restored his self-respect and charged him with energy for new work.” 

     At their best, that’s what father figures do—they insist their “sons” develop new expectations, and live up to them.  

     The film “Genius” just arrived in movie theaters, and gives Perkins and Wolfe long-needed attention for a relationship that resulted in enduring literary works. 
    In my own life, I’ve had three father figures, and still feel grateful for their influence.   

     Merle Picht, my Cedar Falls High School drama teacher, offered guidance and confidence starting in the 10th grade.  He showed me ways to get outside my little box, and sparked motivation to work harder.  He believed in my abilities far more than I did, and that made all the difference. 

     Robert Waller, my singing partner for years, offered a focus on performing that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  As a college freshman—he was a senior—I was making money performing with Waller, and having a fine time.  He had so much confidence in our duo that I just went along, and it worked.  For a good while, Waller offered life advice that saved me mountains of trouble, both academically and personally.  

     Charles Matheson, my college voice teacher, created a passion for music that
    was contagious.  I caught his passion and never lost it. 

     I still remember these father figures fondly for their support and patience, and especially for being role models I could admire and emulate.      

    Their influence waned as we all moved on, which is both inevitable and necessary.  Yet without them, my life would have been considerably different, and likely considerably worse.  

     So here’s to father figures everywhere.  Just by being themselves, they become
    the sorely needed fathers beyond what real fathers provide.    

    Go comment!
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