Jewish World Review July 10, 2003 / 10 Tamuz 5763

Paul Greenberg

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A genealogy of ideas: American, un-American and French

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Alexandre Dumas, king of the swashbuckling authors, who gave the world "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo," also wrote his memoirs, in which he expressed a wish to be buried in his native village of Villers-Cotterets. Instead, the author's ashes are to be transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, where they will now rest next to the remains of other luminaries of the French Republic(s).

The villagers fought the idea, but they didn't have a Frenchman's chance. To quote the mayor of Villers-Cotterets: "From a judicial point of view, a village cannot defend an individual. We were sure to lose." C'est la vie, C'est la France.

In a country so organized that every child is expected to be reading on the same page every day in every school from Paris to Martinique, the notion of local control is decidedly foreign.

Nothing better illustrates the difference between the French republic and this one than this contretemps over a corpse. In this federal union, the president who saved it is buried in Springfield, Ill., the locality he called home. But in rigidly centralized France, even the dead are moved about at Paris' command.

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Mark Twain once summed up the difference between Gallic logic and American experience in a comment about some idea that struck him as not wrong exactly but just weird. His conclusion: "It's not American. It's not anti-American. It's French."

Speaking of Gallic logic, it'd be hard to find a better example than the 2-to-1 appellate decision out of California (naturally) expelling G0d from the Pledge of Allegiance. The reasoning was very EU (European Union): We believe in separation of church and state, the Pledge of Allegiance mentions a Deity, ergo aforesaid Pledge has to be censored.

The reasoning isn't wrong, exactly, just weird. It's so logical it doesn't make sense. It's not un-American, it's not anti-American, it's French.

After the decision came the deluge. The noisy reaction was Pure Dee American. Demonstrators picketed the courthouse in Coronado, Calif., and a small plane flew overhead trailing a banner that proclaimed, "One Nation Under G0d." The scene was a combination evangelical crusade and national political convention, maybe with William Jennings Bryan reciting his Cross of Gold speech.

Welcome, Your Honors, to First Amendment America, where the people's right to freedom of speech and assembly can take some unusual forms, not excluding skywriting.

Congress did its part by rushing out a resolution in defense of the full, unexpurgated Pledge of Allegiance. One of the appellate judges, The Hon. Stephen Reinhardt, shrugged off the gesture, as well he might. For he belongs to a separate branch of this deliberately divided system of government. He no more has to explain himself to Congress than Congress has to explain itself to him. Which gives both an admirable freedom of expression.

But in the course of dismissing that congressional resolution, Judge Reinhardt may have stumbled onto a great truth. Explaining the haste with which the congressional resolution was approved, he said: "It's getting to be election time, and this gives everyone in Congress a chance to prove they are patriotic."

Patriotic? Not pious? This being America, how separate the two? In this country, G0d and Country are so intertwined that a judge who votes to remove any mention of G0d from the Pledge of Allegiance says that those who object are demonstrating their . patriotism. Q.E.D.

The judge's slip is the kind Dr. Freud would have appreciated -- an unconscious acknowledgment that God and Country are inseparable in the American ethos.

Not even The Honorable Stephen Reinhardt, surely, would rule the Creator out of the Declaration of Independence, where He is recognized as the source of our inalienable rights.

In Mr. Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration, that truth was held to be not "self-evident," as in the final version, but "sacred and undeniable." It's still much the better phrase"

The American system separates church and state, not faith and society. Maybe that's what confused these two judges. After all, it's not a clear-cut distinction. Just one that has worked for a couple of centuries. As no rigid rule would have.

The American system isn't logical, as any Frenchman can see. Which is why French republics have to be replaced regularly -- they're too rigid to bend with the times -- while ours has adjusted to the times. It's a much messier process, but it lasts longer. Like the one and only American republic.

Granted, there are exceptional times when we're swept away by uncompromising logic (1861-65, for example) and the results are catastrophic. But for the most part we're guided by common sense. Even if those two judges in California weren't, bless their hearts.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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