Wow: Election 2016.

And we’re back on flag burning.

I am fascinated and disturbed that this debate still rages because it exposes a particular rot at the core of our country – one that I fear threatens to undo us.

So I’m going to ditch my usual constitutional backdrop and get straight to the point on this one.

I’m not an obvious patriot. My household doesn’t fly an American flag. I typically avoid the Pledge of Allegiance and similar affirmations because as an atheist I’m baffled by God’s presence in our secular government. I’d cut military spending given the chance. I think the US is taking the wrong approach in a host of policy areas. I don’t bother thinking about whether we’re the greatest nation on earth because labels don’t interest me.

I do, however, believe that ours is a remarkable country. From the radical initial concept of self-regulating, internally-balancing, tyranny-resistant popular rule; to the very real complications added by a diverse population, and a history of human enslavement and genocide; to the challenges we face today in tackling the unanticipated, anti-democratic effects of capitalism – the US is an awesome and unprecedented political experiment that has produced a remarkable amount of good. We virtually define civil rights, lead the world’s humanitarian efforts, produce astonishing innovation, are the most philanthropic nation and are the planet’s undisputed “superpower.”

So the idea that we might ban burning the American flag in protest? I’m revolted by the soft, ugly underbelly of fear that this proposition exposes – a picture of our society so at odds with the true might of a great leader. The threat to turn the massive power of the state against an individual protester because he burns, spits or urinates on a mere symbol of the country makes our nation seem very small indeed. I worry that by becoming a country that requires patriotism, we may soon exempt ourselves from the necessity of earning it.

The election has shown there is much work to do. We will not be able to rely on our institutions, elected officials or media to lead this charge. These have demonstrated their willingness to stoke our small-minded fears for their own profit. This colossal leadership vacuum means that it will be up to us – regular citizens – to figure out how to change the system so that it once again works for us.

We’re already seeing the strategy that will be used to prevent this from happening: issues like flag burning and other red herrings will be tossed out in hopes that we’ll latch on and yet again look in the wrong direction while power is abused and agendas that don’t benefit most people are pursued.  Let’s not do it this time. Let’s not give in to infighting – and insist on real change instead.