And there's also something about empty-headed patriotism -- as Louisiana's Kingfish, Huey P. Long, once remarked, "If fascism came to America, it would be on a program of Americanism."
Those two forces, infantile protest and thuggish jingoism, clashed on the Emory University campus Sept. 28, foreshadowing conflict on the national stage that's a lot less television-sensational than smashing terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan's mountains, but every bit as important to Americans.
To wit: While the world was riveted to the tube, George W. Bush Saturday unleashed his dogs of war -- a move that virtually all of America supports, even if only reluctantly and with trepidation. But at the U.S. Capitol another skirmish has raged with little notice. Congress last week launched rhetorical missiles against civil liberties with "Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" -- the "PATRIOT Bill."
To oppose the legislation was to be (gasp!) un-PATRIOT-ic. Even civil liberties stalwarts such as GOP Congressman Bob Barr of Smyrna finally ran for cover in the face of that brass-knuckled spin.
Here's what happened at Emory. The university has a student-run radio station, WMRE, that is hip and edgy, maybe raucous. A typical format is that a host packs the studio with friends and they banter about whatever it is that interests college students. Terrorism and whether America should go to war are certainly high on the station's topic list nowadays.
Enter Alexander Dreyer, who will play the role of egregiously infantile protester in this little morality play. Dreyer showed up at the WMRE's Longstreet Hall studio to hang with his friend Kisha Hope, who was on her maiden voyage airing of a show she dubbed "Girls Wear Boxers Too."
Dreyer opposes war, although the intellectual level of his dissent is unclear since he's gone incommunicado after Sept. 28. However, even his friends describe him as a demonstrative hothead, sort of a "Hey, Dude, let's get really trashed and do something about this ... what are we talking about? Oh, yeah, the war, man."
"He felt something needed to be done," Hope recalls. "Something as drastic as burning the flag."
Dreyer had photocopied little versions of the American flag. When students called and opposed the war, Dreyer would tear up a paper flag. "Well, actually, even if they disagreed with him and supported the war, he'd still rip one," says P'nina Mossman, the station's student general manager.
One caller was very angry, so Dreyer escalated things by burning flags. Unfortunately -- and this may say something about the need for Emory to double-check that its students actually do have brains -- during the banner roast, Dreyer dropped an ignited flag and scorched part of the studio, which is in a dorm where a lot of students nest.
Emory folk are very tech savvy, and there's a videocam in the studio that broadcasts what happens over the Internet. "It's so Mom can watch you at home," Mossman says. "It's a voyeuristic thing."
You can imagine how Mom -- many Moms -- probably felt at seeing a fire in their precious child's dorm. Hosts are responsible for guests, so Mossman (who also happens to be a Creative Loafing intern) immediately fired Hope -- but they're still friends.
Now the antagonists -- or protagonists, depending on your POV -- enter. They're two boys from a fraternity, the sort of macho brave guys who vent their testosterone by ganging up in tandem against a single opponent.
The frat duo -- whose names are carefully omitted from Emory records of the altercation -- intercepted Dreyer outside the WMRE studio. An altercation ensued. Illustrating the intellectual refinement of the two guys' disaffection with Dreyer, one sneered, "You burn flags you must be a faggot," according to a police report.
One attacker held Dreyer while the other attempted to inject patriotism via a drubbing. However, Dreyer is one tough scrapper for a pacifist. He head-butted one guy and more or less punched the bully's lights out.
The campus cops came, and things died down. Emory honchos prayed the media were too distracted by Osama and fears of anthrax to pay much attention to the little campus spat -- this isn't great stuff for check-writing parents to read. And, indeed, there was only a brief mention of the episode in the AJC.
Although it seemed a ready-made freedom-of-speech story, it's a case where it's hard to get warm and fuzzy about either side. That, plus Emory dropping a cone of silence over the assailants' names and, even grabbing student photos taken of the event, has deterred media inquiries from CNN and The Washington Post, among others.
"Just an isolated incident," says Nancy Seideman, Emory's director of communications. She points out that 10 days ago at competing rallies for peace and military action, everything was so damn civil that the groups combined and alternated speakers. "We want people to know that at Emory free speech isn't against the law," Seideman says.
Phew! That's good to know. What a relief!
But at Emory, some students are more equal than others. While Dreyer has had his name splashed all over, including police reports and in the campus newspaper, The Emory Wheel, as have bit players Hope and Mossman, the university was sitting tight on the names of the fratty club boys.
Moreover, the cowardly pair's case will be referred to a confidential student conduct board rather than the public criminal justice system, where it belongs. Mossman is distressed at that. "The type of student who wants to be on (the conduct board) isn't likely to take action against those guys. It will be conservatives looking out for conservatives."
That, of course, is how courts and judges often work (see: Law 101). But the two brownshirts-in-training shouldn't have their sensitivities spared by Emory.
All of this may soon be moot. The devilishly named PATRIOT bill will undermine freedom of speech and association. It will allow indefinite jailing of aliens -- even if they have proven they aren't bad guys or girls. The government can without restraint declare domestic groups as "terrorist" (a la the "subversive" brand of a half-century ago). Secret searches will be expanded, and huge investigations of American citizens will be launched in the name of "intelligence." Private phone calls and e-mail? Hahaha.
Burning a flag is a gut punch for many people. And, it's often intensely immature. But it is a political statement. Mark Twain once designed his version of the flag with skulls and crossbones replacing the stars.
But as Twain and others have learned, dissent comes with a price. Consider: Many of Twain's anti-war and anti-imperialism works were suppressed from 1900 to 1923. Or: Socialist Eugene Debs spent more than three years in Atlanta's federal prison for the "crime" of making a speech in 1918 in which he said: "... the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably do both." Or: J. Edgar Hoover, when he couldn't prove Martin Luther King Jr. was a commie, tried to smear the civil rights leaders with exposing his personal peccadilloes.
The scurrilous information Hoover gathered on King is just the sort of smelly stuff the FBI will be eagerly picking up with its new unfettered powers. With the PATRIOT bill, America may soon find that the "freedom" we are defending is the freedom to march in unquestioning lockstep with the president and the generals.
To do otherwise is to invite gangs of "patriots" -- grown-up versions of the fraternity guys -- to beat the crap out of you. This is what Mr. Dreyer learned.
Senior Editor John Sugg -- whose motto is: "If Mommie ain't a patriot, then you've got to turn her in to the nearest FBI agent" -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.
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