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   Galileo and the flag
Wednesday, June 22 2005
Today I used the sage-green latex to paint another wall of the teevee room, the only other wall that is vertical. (The two other walls slant at a 45 degree angle from the roof ridge to the floor, doubling as ceiling. They remain, like all of the Backstreet Boys, white.)
As I worked, I listened to an installment of the PBS show Nova that I'd Tivoed. It was the one about the rise and fall of Galileo, with a particular focus on his interactions with his bastard daughter, who spent the adult portion of her brief life in a dreary convent. The two evidently engaged in much correspondence and many of the letters from the daughter exist to this day. (Galileo's replies have all been lost, presumably burnt by a stuffy old convent mistress.)
Of course, whenever anyone looks at the life and times of Galileo, the overarching issue is the age-old conflict between religion and reason, between observation and faith. Galileo was one of the first of our species to understand the superiority of observation and logic over blind allegiance to ancient dogma. Single-handedly, with the help of some new technology (the telescope), Galileo began the advocacy for most productive method for understanding the Universe.
Maddeningly, though, the battle Galileo began is still far from over. While only 18% of Americans still think (if that word can be used) that the Sun revolves around the Earth, half of Americans think the world is less than 10,000 years old, a view that reflects a lot more allegiance to ancient texts than it does to empirical evidence. Then, of course, there are the many curious fact-ignoring policies of the most powerful nation on the planet, one actually founded on Enlightenment principles that Galileo helped establish.
Listening to the controversy surrounding Galileo's discoveries, I couldn't help but be reminded of modern conflicts that are only unsettled insofar as people continue to believe in situations where it makes more sense to understand.

Confirming a nagging sense of despair brought on by rehearing the tales of Galileo's troubles was news that the House of Representatives has yet again voted for a flag burning amendment to the Constitution. This amendment would allow the Congress to curtail free speech in cases where that speech included the flag's desecration. (Whether or not this would allow Congress to ban the desecration of all versions and instances of the American flag is not yet known.)
I know the Constitution is a musty old document and perhaps conditions have changed in this country, but is the sanctity of a single instance of the infinitely-reproducible flag worth a change to every copy of the the nation's Constitution? In a comparison of the two symbols of America, which is worth more? Who was a greater hero, Betsy Ross or James Madison? The fact that a flag burning amendment has such strong bipartisan support suggests that it's obvious which symbol makes the most sense to the most people in America.
But assuming that the rest of the world still matters, what example does America's freedom-limiting flag fetishism provide to other would-be free nations? What, for example, do Americans think of the Iraqi flag, and would it make sense to us if an ostensibly free nation other than our own banned the burning of their silly unrecognizable flags? That's a poll question I'd like to see.

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