Star-spangled blather
Pittsburgh, PA
November 16, 2002
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Star-spangled blather

Friday, November 15, 2002

Several days ago, Pennsylvania came a step closer to becoming a place where school children will one day be compelled to bear the weight of their elders' dubious patriotism.

We have Rep. Allan C. Egolf, R-Cumberland, to thank for this. Ever conscious of the possibility that Pennsylvania's schools may be producing a generation of children incapable of resisting the siren lure of al-Qaida, Egolf sponsored a bill to take all guesswork out of the nurturing of schoolroom patriotism.

Egolf's bill mandates that students in public and private schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem every day. The bill also mandates the display of the American flag in every classroom. Things that really should be in the classroom, like books and a reasonable student-teacher ratio, will continue to be optional, of course.

Those with religious or secular hang-ups about rendering unto Caesar can opt out of a cappella renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

School officials will notify negligent parents the moment their child exercises the rights granted to all American citizens by the increasingly irrelevant U.S. Constitution. Presumably the class patriots and school yard bullies will corner the junior dissidents at recess and have a talk with them about the high price of "hating America."

It goes without saying that Egolf's patriotic act cleared Pennsylvania's Senate in a unanimous vote. It now has to go to the House for review before Gov. Mark Schweiker has an opportunity to throw red meat to his Republican colleagues by signing a soon-to-be-infamous piece of legislation.

During the best of times in a hopelessly compromised democracy like ours, it's easier for a politician to be on the wrong side of the Constitution than the wrong side of a growing political consensus -- even if it is demonic.

As the United States gears up for war with Iraq, our political scene isn't exactly hopping with profiles in courage. Egolf said he introduced his bill because he was bothered that some schools across the commonwealth never bothered to recite the pledge.

I don't know about anyone else, but I yearn for a time when men and women of conscience would've laughed Egolf's legislation out of committee. If we're going to make patriotism compulsory for kids, why not fashion laws that make reciting the pledge mandatory at sports events, traffic jams and karaoke bars? Kids aren't the only ones who need a shot of patriotism from on high.

Egolf's bill finds a parallel in the great Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian in "The Devil's Dictionary," his caustic collection of turn-of-the-last-century aphorisms:

Christian n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

Substitute patriot for "Christian" and the Constitution for "the teachings of Christ" and the lesson applies more than ever.

Our students would be better off if they were given incentives to read writers like Ambrose Bierce. Yankee skepticism about empty ritual and those in power is a genuinely American virtue -- not compulsory patriotism. The value of kids reading writers like Bierce is obvious: They'll learn to see through the clumsy machinations of politicians like Allan Egolf with their eyes closed.

In fact, Bierce's definition of patriotism ought to have Egolf's picture stenciled above it:

Patriotism n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.

Bierce published his definition of patriotism in 1906, but it manages to resonate with the follies of our own time. A century later, we still need to be reminded of the Civil War veteran's insights:

Flag n. A colored rag borne above troops and hoisted on forts and ships. It appears to serve the same purpose as certain signs that one sees on vacant lots in London -- 'Rubbish may be shot here.'

If we allowed prayer in school, we wouldn't have time for nonsense like this.

Tony Norman can be reached by e-mail at or 412-263-1631.

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