Yesterday, and again today, we’ve gotten a ton of traffic out of the three stories we had on the abortive flag-burning affair at LSU. And being the dutiful web traffic whores we are, it’s time to go back to the well for one more shot at it. We’ve got advertisers paying per impression, after all.
It’s not all that important a story. That’s understood. It’s only semi-remarkable; there are misfits who do things to get attention all the time. The only thing remarkable about what happened yesterday was the reaction he received and its size.
If you’ve had enough of this issue, by this point you’ve read far enough that the page view has been recorded. So you’re excused.
If not, please accept this as a little bit of perspective on the whole affair.
The LSU flag-burning story didn’t start with Ben Haas getting pelted with water balloons yesterday. It actually started with a Navy SEAL blowing a hole through Osama Bin Laden’s cranium a couple of weeks ago.
Because Bin Laden’s demise, and the jubilant reaction of common Americans to it, rubbed a guy named Isaac Eslava the wrong way. Eslava, as it turns out, is or was an LSU student of Colombian extraction and dual American/Colombian citizenship. He’s also intimately familiar with controlled substances, wears his hair like a girl and apparently steals cars.
Anyway, Eslava showed up at the flagpole on LSU’s Parade Grounds early on the Monday morning after news of the Bin Laden hit had broken, cut the halyard holding up the giant American flag and proceeded to attempt to burn it. He was run off by passing students and campus police ultmately arrested him for destroying school property.
The Eslava affair, unsurprisingly, created no small stir on LSU’s campus. And among a certain segment of the campus community for whom private – or even public – property is less than sacrosanct, the fact that the Colombian was chiefly guilty of vandalism was less important than the idea he was arrested for trying to exercise his right to free speech. Because burning the flag is the kind of free speech that is absolutely the most important to protect, you see.
One member of that segment of the campus community is a graduate student in communications named Benjamin Haas, he of the flannel shirt/skinny jeans/unkempt facial hair and old-fashioned-beatnik-spectacles persuasion. Haas styles himself a poet, and has been published in a couple of offbeat magazines and web sites. And so to complete the transformation from oddball to cliche, he sought and received a permit from LSU to burn a flag of his own on the parade grounds. And he set up a Facebook event to promote it.
News of that plan spread like wildfire, making it onto the pages of the campus newspaper the LSU Daily Reveille and leaking out onto the internet.
But Haas forgot to consult with the state fire marshall to get a burn permit. It seems beatniks are burdened by bureaucracy just like the rest of us. Thus he wasn’t within his rights as a flag-burner after all.
Meanwhile, LSU’s Student Government Association president organized a counter-demonstration to protest Haas’ prospective flag-burning. And that demonstration found a much larger base of support than did Haas’ action. So much so that by noon yesterday there were well over 1,000 people on hand who were extremely unhappy with Haas.
At this point, Haas realized that if he’d be burning a flag he’d be doing so without a burn permit and he’d be going to jail. He also realized that he’d be violating the law in front of hundreds of hostile witnesses. Discretion being the better part of valor, he opted instead to make a statement rather than to burn the flag.
By this point, Haas’ proposed spectacle had hooked in much of the state’s media and particularly that of the two major TV stations in Baton Rouge. He could have issued a press release, posted a commentary on his YouTube account, issued something on Facebook, wrote a letter to the editor of the Reveille or Baton Rouge Advocate or utilized any number of other outlets for his free speech.
Instead, Haas did the most provocative thing he could in pursuit of notoriety. He waded into the crowd which at this point was gathered for the counter-demonstration – in other words, somebody ELSE’S audience for their exercise of free speech – to make his statement.
The reaction was predictable. Haas was hooted down with chants of “Go To Hell Hippie, Go To Hell” and suchlike, and when he opened his remarks by attempting to make a snarky statement about the size of the crowd, he was pelted with water balloons (rotten vegetables being in apparent short supply these days).
At this point, Haas decided to abandon even his scaled-down program and hot-foot it out of the scene. But the crowd wasn’t done with him and chose to follow him. Thus came the surreal spectacle of Haas and a few oddball allies leading a procession of several law-enforcement personnel, including three police officers on horseback, and hundreds of furious, flag-waving college students trailing quickly behind.
And that spectacle quickly went viral on the internet yesterday.
Haas’ humiliating finale into the back of a squad car, where he was deposited for reasons of his own safety before being spirited away from the crowd, will undoubtedly make him a cause celebre among the Hard Left. In the comments under our coverage of yesterday’s events we’ve already seen the typical protestations of his having been “intimidated” and “suppressed” in his attempts at expression, and those have been accompanied by lectures about how the counter-demonstrators don’t really care about the freedom they purport to defend.
There are two takeaways from this which appear fairly clear.
First, the Constitution protects the freedom of expression. It does NOT, however, provide the right to a friendly audience. Haas could have avoided his tribulation yesterday by putting out a press release which would have been covered by the media. Instead, he created a chaotic situation by provoking an already-incensed mob. That’s not suppression of free speech, it’s bad judgement on his part.
And second, his defenders don’t appear to have any more affinity for the freedoms they think “the mob” hates than does the mob. Those same people have a different answer for whether they’d gladly stand by the right of some other oddball to deposit a pig’s head into a mosque, for example, or to recite lines from Birth Of A Nation or the Turner Diaries at a gathering of the National Urban League. By the standard they impose, such ill-advised expression should be just as protected as Haas wading into a crowd of flag-wavers with disparaging remarks. Except that’s not how they’d characterize it; instead, the mosque and Urban League examples constitute “hate speech” and must be curtailed for reasons of public order. Muslims or racial minorities have the right to anger and shouldn’t be provoked, while “average” (middle-class white conservative, moderate or non-political) Americans don’t need such kid-glove treatment. (The correct answer is that all three groups are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and deliberate provocations of any of them invite a negative response the invitor may not be satisfied with).
And at the end of the day, is it not apparent that the First-Amendment scolds coming out of the woodwork in this case are less interested in freedom of expression than assailing the patriotic? I see few defenders of the counter-protestors yesterday among the scolds; nor do I see an allowance that while the water balloon launchers are probably guilty of misdemeanor assault the rest were perfectly within their rights to tell Haas exactly what they think of him and his plans. Instead, that’s “intimidation” which interferes with Haas’ right to cause outrage in person.
It’s laughable and absurd, and it falls as flat as Haas’ attempt at 15 minutes of fame. But both Haas and the scolds defending him will content themselves that their rejection by the majority confers upon them a crown of superiority, from which they’ll return again and again to disparage those of us knuckle-draggers who won’t abide provocation or challenge without responding.