Looking at some of the recent local disagreements, I was reminded of our 12th grade debate competition. We had to pick from a list of contentious topics like abortion, gay marriage and the right to bear arms. Being the young contrarian that I was, and this being Waterloo, the birthplace of Memorial Day, I chose flag-burning. It seemed to be the most provocative topic with the most delicious built-in argument. We’d just covered the Supreme Court case that made it legal to burn the flag — Texas v. Johnson (1989), which has an especially eloquent majority opinion by Justice William Brennan. While the act of burning an American Flag is abhorrent to nearly everyone, and is usually done so by a bunch of anti-American commie punks looking for attention, I argued, as the court did, that tolerance of extreme forms of speech is essential for the first amendment to carry any weight at all. Though veterans’ groups are among those most offended by the act, and have the greatest moral authority on the subject, we can’t let respect or sentiment be used as an excuse to erode liberty. Once you start down that road, what’s to prevent further bans on free expression that offends public sensibility? Whose sensibility? Flag-burning is a cheap and unimaginative way of conveying the point that you hate American policy, but by allowing this affront to our sense of propriety in the moment, we’re serving the enduring principles of the free speech guaranteed by the Constitution. There’s a reason we love our Constitution so much: most countries can’t point to a founding document that guarantees freedoms under law in a language anyone can understand. I probably closed with the apocryphal Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I mostly agree with what my seventeen-year-old self had to say, but looking back on it I’m struck by how black and white the issue appeared to me — and how accomplished I felt simply for making the case. It reminds me of “Draw Mohammed Day” a couple months ago; a global act of needless provocation that did really did nothing to advance the cause of Western liberalism, though it probably result in plenty of self-satisfied doodles.
Still, it was a fun debate and I’d do it again. I’ve noticed some other locals seem to be spoiling for a good argument. Ulster Publishing publisher Geddy Sveikauskas described the good vibes at a recent community meeting on Woodstock’s proposed curfew ordinance, which must indeed by a fun subject to argue about. In New Paltz, we have a School Board president elected despite facing the charge of driving while high and possessing a 20-bag. Few subjects are as fun to argue about as marijuana. Then there’s the case of a censored carousel horse in Saugerties, which had the words “abortion” and “miscarriage” blacked out after some complaints were made. Then the artist put black tape over the horse’s mouth. Silenced! All of these subjects would be quite fun to argue over, particularly if you want to take the libertine side and you’re a teenager high on principles and low on the ambiguities life experience tends to instill.
It’s been a good summer for debate. As always, we welcome your letters!
Will Dendis is the editor of our sister paper, the Saugerties Times.