Burn the Flag

 

It’s a smoky, beer-soaked night at Davey’s, sometime around 1994. Onstage are the Starkweathers, a Kansas City band named after a Nebraska serial killer. They pound out real country — electric, twangy and raw — unlike the hat acts from Nashville. Somewhere during the set they pass around one of those antique-looking gray- and-brown ceramic whiskey jugs, and everyone takes a swig.

The lead singer is Rich Smith, and before the night’s over, he’ll barrel into what will become the Starkweathers’ signature song.

Burn the flag, he’ll sing. Rip it up.

The tune is fast and catchy, the lyrics simple: Don’t let ’em ram it down your throat if you don’t want. Speak your mind. Stand right up. Yeah burn the flag. Burn it up.

The Starkweathers start the song with the chorus, and the verses that follow make it clear they’re not mindless hooligans. Sure enough a lot of people died to keep this country free, Smith acknowledges, and he’s proud of the “redneck blood” that runs through his own veins. But, he warns, he won’t join no big parade when they wave that thing to cover up their shame.

Then it’s back to the chorus. Burn the flag.

Smith takes his concerns global. Well, I ain’t just a talkin’ bout the ol’ red, white and blue, he notes. It could be the Stars and Bars, Union Jack, Rising Sun — it’s any flag they wave to keep you hypnotized.

By this time, the audience is singing along with Smith’s infectiously subversive chorus. Burn the flag.

His final verse twists the Vietnam-era slur against anti-war protesters and challenges: If you don’t love it, change it. It don’t have to be this way. The actions any disgusted American could take? Well, there’s a range of possibilities, and Smith’s wink at the end softens his first, redneck reaction: Use guns or votes or maybe smile and sing …

Burn the flag.

Like too many things of beauty, the Starkweathers didn’t last long. The band split up for reasons that had nothing to do with music. The band’s other singer and songwriter, Mike Ireland, went on to record a couple of critically lauded albums (1998’s Learning How to Live was for Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop label); this summer, he plays on second Saturdays down at Harry’s Country Club. Smith dropped out of the music scene for a while. He works a day job in shipping and receiving at a music store in Lee’s Summit, but he’s been working on a new band called the Broadsides and says they’re scheduled to play at Mike’s Tavern in mid-July.

Smith probably won’t sing “Burn the Flag” at gigs because it was such a Starkweathers song. But the track appears on a compilation CD put out last fall by Bloodshot Records, the alt-country label in Chicago. On For a Decade of Sin: 11 Years of Bloodshot Records, the Kansas City boys share disc space with the likes of Ralph Stanley, Hank III, the Old 97s and the Waco Brothers, along with local favorites Split Lip Rayfield and Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys. “Burn the Flag” is also for sale on iTunes.

I’m glad to discover all of this because I’ve been hearing the song in my head for more than a decade — every couple of years, when Congress saddles up its tired old flag-protecting horse. This year is supposedly a crucial one for passing a constitutional amendment because support for such a change might be waning — which makes the effort seem all the more pathetic, just like taking a few more whacks at gay marriage. The fact that some folks aren’t falling for it anymore gives a person hope. But some of us are still gullible.

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And that’s what a lot of politicians are counting on.

Over the past couple of years, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver has spent many of his trips home complaining about the big sham issues in Congress.

“The philosophy here in Washington is simple,” Cleaver tells me. “When things look bad for your side, change the subject and you play on the emotions of a segment of the public. Flag burning, the federal marriage amendment, and if they can come up with something comparable to saving Christmas, which is what they did last year, or another Terri Schiavo … these so-called wedge issues will put emotions above reason. As long as the public is inclined to do that, that’s going to continue to be one of the strategies of this administration.”

Like many of us, Cleaver believes that the more important issue is “the places we are burning as we wave the flag, like Baghdad.” He goes on: “We have an $8.3 trillion debt, we are borrowing a million every second, paying $600,000 interest every second of the day. The third-highest expenditure in the U.S. budget is interest on the debt,” Cleaver says. “So why in the world should we stop in the middle of all of those issues vital to the welfare of this nation to focus on something that’s not a problem?”

As Cleaver points out, “We are not in the middle of a flag-burning frenzy.” When an issue is completely unrelated to people’s day-to-day lives, Cleaver says, “The chances are really high that it is a sham issue. When these things are done by the administration, it is declaring almost openly that the public is not wise and therefore we can trick them at will. Which ought to be an insult to every American.”

Tired of watching my brothers and sisters being insulted, and inspired by the Starkweathers’ music, I decided to take Smith’s advice. It was time to burn a flag.

I don’t actually own one, so, like all good Americans, I go to Wal-Mart. There, I’m relieved to discover that the American flags are all made in the U.S.A. (If you buy a whole rig, though, a pole and everything, the label notes that some components may be made in China.) But I’m not so happy to discover one reason that we might really need to pass a flag-protection amendment: packages and packages of flag-designed paper plates and napkins. This is clearly a violation of the U.S. Flag Code, Chapter 1, Sec. 8, rule (i): “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

There are a lot of these regulations that define respect for the flag, including the last one: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

I laid down $9 and walked out of Wal-Mart with my 3-inch-by-5-inch, poly-cotton Old Glory in a clear plastic wrapper. Once I had my burnin’-flag in hand, a strange thing happened. I figured it was my right, protected by the U.S. Constitution as a form of free speech, and that we ought to use those rights while we got ’em. But before torching the thing, I had to ask myself some serious questions.

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Am I really mad enough to burn a flag? Is my country really so FUBAR that it’s time to light one up?

The day I bought the flag, the 2,500th U.S. soldier died in Iraq. According to the lowest estimates, more than 30,000 Iraqis have been killed in our effort to give them “freedom” and “democracy,” though they never asked for our help. Everyone knows our president lied about his reasons for starting that war; he went unchallenged by this country’s “opposition party,” such as it is. Meanwhile, 40 percent of us cared so little about democracy here at home that we didn’t bother to vote in the November 2000 elections. We let more than 45 million of our own people go without health insurance. In 2004, the Census Bureau reports, 37 million people lived in poverty — up 1.1 million from 2003. Thirty percent of us fail to graduate from high school. As a nation, we officially refuse to cooperate with worldwide efforts to save the freakin’ planet.

I could go on, but by now I’m wondering why other people aren’t burning flags already. Maybe we’re too doped up on television and sugar and antidepressants to do anything. Maybe we’re too exhausted, working double time to cover for all of our fellow workers who’ve been laid off. Maybe we just need to hear a good Starkweathers’ song. In that spirit, Smith let us put it up on our Web site.

“That’s kind of the sad thing about it — this song is 13 years old, more or less, and it’s still relevant,” Smith tells me. But it’s hard for him to be happy that his song is still relevant. “The direction that this country’s going in … is overwhelming to me sometimes. To me that song was never about randomly and for no reason burning flags. It’s not just like joyriding. You should reserve it for the absolute, the utmost of your despair.”

I’m there. And I know I’m not alone.

But I have a few more questions. Where will I burn my flag? Out on Main Street, in front of my office? (Not unless I’d want to unfairly implicate the entire Pitch establishment in my own personal conscientious objection.) Out at Village West, our sparkling new altar to sprawling consumerism? On the Plaza, where the handful of anti-war protesters carry on their vigils every Sunday afternoon?

And then I have to think about getting my head busted, my nose broken, my teeth bashed in. It’s quite possible I’d end up in a video clip on someone’s camera phone, shown over and over on The O’Reilly Factor, or get run over on the sidewalk by an enraged flag defender in an Escalade.

I’m brave enough to write all sorts of things in this paper, but I ain’t stupid. I’m not prepared to die because one of my fellow Americans doesn’t respect one of my American freedoms.

The real reason that we don’t need a flag-burning amendment? They’ve made it way too scary to burn a damn flag. They’ve made us value the symbol of freedom over the actual freedom.

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