The Fourth, the Flag, and You

With President Clinton having just (gently) lectured the Chinese on the merits of a democratic society, one that allows political dissent, it's a bit disquieting to turn to Washington and find members of the Senate trying to limit free speech here.

Advocates of a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag are trying to use the patriotic feelings invoked by the Fourth of July to push the Senate to pass it.

The Supreme Court has already found so-called flag burning an expression of free-speech rights. The First Amendment has never been amended and it doesn't need to be now. Flag burning is rare (when was the last time you heard of it happening?). If the amendment passes, it will only encourage people to defy the new law in order to make their "statement." Meanwhile, everyone's rights will be abridged: If you can chip away at some parts of such purely political free speech, you endanger the rest.

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Instead, when the fireworks, anthems, and Old Glory proudly flapping in the breeze this weekend fill you with patriotic pride, consider this:

Only 17 percent of those old enough to vote went to the polls in primaries this year; 10 states recorded their lowest turnout ever, according to a report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

More than 80 of the 436 seats in the US House of Representatives will be uncontested this fall. The number could go as high as 100 seats, which would be a post-World War II record. Only 19 were uncontested in 1996.

Some will say these statistics show a satisfied electorate, living in good economic times and choosing not to flex its political muscles.

Maybe. But a June report by 20 academic, business, and political leaders isn't so sanguine. "A Nation of Spectators," sponsored by the National Commission on Civic Renewal, finds that too many Americans sit on the sidelines and complain about politicians, but do nothing to help. The study says we'd rather channel-change than change the world.

What can we do?

The commission asks people to join at least one civic organization "dealing with matters of local neighborhood, church, school, or community concern." And, by the way, you've just accomplished another commission goal - "civic education should include the regular reading and discussion of newspapers."

Now relax and enjoy honoring America's independence.

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