The Truth, Mainly - 07/04/1994

Here's a little foam-flecked Fourth of July humor
by Leon Satterfield

This is the day for fevered patriotic oratory—the partisan kind where the speaker gets little flecks of foam at the corners of his mouth. I know that sort of thing makes you uneasy, so let me assure you that what follows is going to be calm, dispassionate, and stunningly non-partisan.

There are two traditions of 4th of July rhetoric in this country. There's the yes-yes rhetoric of assent that e. e. cummings parodies: "next to of course god america i/love you land of the pilgrims and so forth."

And there's the yes-but rhetoric of dissent exemplified by runaway slave Frederick Douglass in an 1852 4th of July speech in Rochester, N.Y., when he asked his white audience, "What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."

I'd argue that Thomas Jefferson was in the yes-but tradition back in1776 when he asserted that whenever government gets in the way of our inalienable rights, "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it. . . ."

Which tradition we like best will probably determine which side we take in the cultural war being fought in Lake County, Florida. You may have read about it. A new state law requires Florida public schools to teach the kids about other cultures. By a 3-2 majority, the Lake County school board said their teachers must also teach that American culture is "unquestionably superior."

The chair of the board, Pat Hart—Pat Buchanan admiringly calls her a "self-professed patriot, Christian and Republican"—says that Lake County kids should always be reminded that our culture is "the best of the best."

But the teachers union says that would undermine the state law, one of the aims of which is "to eliminate personal and national ethnocentrism so that children understand that a specific culture is not intrinsically superior or inferior to any other."

Buchanan calls that "egalitarian piffle."

The noise you just heard was a collective snort from anthropologists throughout the world.

A snippy NY Times piece says that Mrs. Hart "acknowledges that she has never set foot outside the U.S., speaks no foreign languages and has no academic training in comparative cultures, religion, and government."

That noise you just heard was a collective snort of most of the other Americans against whom such charges could be brought.

There. Am I being fair-minded or what? If my objectivity credentials are all in order, let me state my own calmly considered position.

To put it as delicately, as clinically as I can, I think the Lake County school board, by a 3-2 margin, is a couple of alligators short of a full swamp.

Not, I hasten to add, because I think that teaching kids egalitarian piffle will make them much more tolerant of diversity—except in a few anatomically odd cases. "They wear rings there?" they'll say. "Cool!"

What bothers me is the requirement that kids be taught that our culture is "unquestionably superior." Imagine this:

After 30 minutes watching slides of people who look funny, Mr. Jones says, "These people may look funny to us, class, but they don't look funny to each other. And remember, our culture is unquestionably superior to theirs. We're the best of the best and we mustn't forget it."

That's when the class weisenheimer says in her Eddie Haskell voice, "Gee whiz, Mr. Jones, I saw in the paper last month that a higher percentage of people are in jail in the U.S. than in countries where people look funny. In fact, we have a higher percentage in jail than any other country in the world. Is that how our culture got to be the best of the best?"

Mr. Jones gets that canny Danny Quayle look in his eyes. He knows he's being set up. The weisenheimer's co-conspirators join the fun:

•"Golly, Mr. Jones, the Children's Defense Fund says our national delinquency rate for car loans is only 3 percent, but our delinquency rate for child support payments is 49 percent. What's that say about our culture?"

•"Gosh almighty, Mr. Jones, Consumer Reports says of the 24 developed nations in the OECD, we rank 21st in infant mortality, 17th in male life expectancy, and 16th in female life expectancy. Is that a sign of an unquestionably superior culture?"

Mr. Jones is up against it. His students are questioning something the school board says is unquestionable. Should he flunk them? Take them out and shoot them? Tell the school board to take this job and shove it?

Maybe he should write a Teacher's Declaration of Independence—and read aloud to the board members the part about altering or abolishing government that gets in the way of education. Then he could tell them that the right to question any value judgment is what makes America great and if they don't like it they can just go live in China and so forth.

Hand me a hanky. I believe I have little flecks of foam at the corners of my mouth.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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