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It's Stars and Spite Forever At a Phoenix Art Museum

Old Glory gets a new look in exhibit, and some veterans are fighting mad

ARIZONA'S veterans groups are seeing red these days over the red, white, and blue.

An exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum - "Old Glory, The American Flag in Contemporary Art" - has sparked vitriolic protests here over what the veterans see as desecration of the nation's most visible symbol of freedom.

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Of 80 displays in the exhibit, two in particular have raised the ire of veterans: a flag lying on a floor that visitors must step on to sign a comment book, and Old Glory partially draped in a toilet bowl.

Phoenix is the only city on the provocative exhibit's nationwide tour where protest has been sparked. About 300 protesters, many of them military veterans, demonstrated at the museum March 24, demanding that the exhibit be closed.

The debate over the exhibit has caused some to argue that veterans groups are placing the flag, a symbol of freedom, above freedom itself. The right to dissent is among the rights for which other veterans fought and died, they say.

Museum director Jim Ballinger refuses to remove the displays considered offensive, saying that would be censorship.

Last week, protesters found a powerful ally in US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who also called on the museum to close the exhibit. Mr. Gingrich, his mind made up over the matter, turned down an invitation by museum officials to see the exhibit for himself.

"I don't have to look at a US flag in the toilet to know that it is wrong," he said. "When I talk about elite versus classic American values, I think the Phoenix Art Museum is a perfect example."

Opponents of the flag exhibit, like Gingrich, say it exemplifies society's battle over cultural values. Supporters, meanwhile, say the exhibit should be judged on all 80 displays, some of which go back to the 1950s and offer insights into America's past.

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The furor highlights the high-profile role that veterans play in this politically conservative state. They have successfully exerted their influence in other ways, such as lobbying state lawmakers to rename state highways. Last Dec. 7 on the 54th anniversary of Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor, Arizona lawmakers renamed Interstate 10 the "Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway" in deference to the state's veterans.

The legislators did so despite the fact that no link exists between the road and the historical event. The highway didn't even exist at the time of the attack. Critics contend the renaming is a slap in the face at the state's Japanese-Americans, since the road winds past the site of a Japanese-American internment camp used during World War II.

Besides the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway, lawmakers also have renamed Interstate 15 as Veterans Memorial Highway, and a state road in northern Arizona as Bushmaster Memorial Highway to commemorate a World War II fighting unit that was recruited in Arizona.

The March 24 protest of the flag exhibit, meanwhile, got so heated that the museum's curator of 20th-century art bolted from the crowd as he waited to speak and sprinted to the museum's locked doors, to cries of "coward" from one onlooker.

"Get this ... thing out of the city of Phoenix so we can be proud again!" shouted another protester sporting an American Legion hat.

The city prosecutor's office was asked to investigate whether the museum could be tried under a state law that prohibits "abuse of venerated objects."

Prosecutors declined, however, saying the law is unconstitutional.

The controversy isn't expected to die down anytime soon. On Saturday, the museum will sponsor a forum on freedom of expression and the arts, during which the exhibit is expected to dominate discussion, if not stir more protests.

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