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I love my country.

It's not something you'll catch me saying often, because, let's face it, there are few pronouncements less cool. It's infinitely more fun to rag on the country's foibles and flaws, to declare it bound for heck in the express lane because of this political development or that cultural trend. We all do that, yours truly as much as anyone. But when you get right down to it, when you come to that place where nitty meets gritty and rubber, road . . .

I love my country.

I love it for many reasons. I love it for the First Amendment and for a certain stretch of the California coastline north of Malibu. I love it for protest marches, success stories and Ray Charles singing about Georgia. I love it for what it is and even more for what it has the potential to be. And please note that I love it even though no one ever put a gun to my head and told me to do so.

The distinction is important in the wake of recent news out of Virginia. It seems that lawmakers were on the verge of passing a bill requiring the state's schoolchildren to begin each day with the Pledge of Allegiance. But last week, the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Warren Barry, abruptly withdrew the measure and stormed out of the chamber, angry that his colleagues had voted to soften the penalties that could be levied against kids who violated the proposed law.

Barry thought they deserved to be suspended from school, but the Education Committee disagreed. For that, Barry blasted his fellow lawmakers as "spineless pinkos," which, for those who don't speak Cold War Nutcase, means: communist sympathizers.

Barry's colleagues have promised to take no further action on the bill, keeping the door open for passage if he changes his mind. But Barry says he's not about to, for which we should all breathe a sigh of relief.

I've got nothing against children beginning their day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I did, and it doesn't seem to have harmed me any. What makes the Virginia measure frightening is the specter of government coercion, of kids being forced to take a loyalty oath under threat of serious punishment. It's the kind of thing you would expect of Hitler's Germany, Khrushchev's Soviet Union or Castro's Cuba. But here?

Since when does this country -- this country above all others -- have to compel its citizens to swear their loyalty? It's unseemly. It's insulting. And it's stupid, too. After all, how much stock can you put in an expression of love someone was forced to make?

The weird thing is that this idiocy comes from the political right. For years, men and women on that side of the ideological spectrum have argued that government can't, and ought not try, to legislate emotion, to regulate by legal means the way people think and feel. As in the argument that hate-crimes legislation amounts to criminalization of a person's beliefs. Although I'd probably argue over how far that stricture should be taken, I think, in the main, the point is valid.

How very strange, then, to see those same people repeatedly turn around and attempt to do the thing they claim to abhor. They've tried to force spiritual enlightenment with school prayer initiatives, respect for the flag with anti-flag burning measures. Now, this guy would enforce patriotism by compelling a loyalty oath.

Never mind that such an oath represents the very antithesis of the American ideal.

See, there's something else I love about this country: the fact that it generally -- not always, but generally -- has sufficient confidence in its virtues that it allows citizens time and space to discover those virtues for themselves. Allows them to decide, free of coercion, that this is a pretty neat place to be -- or to vehemently disagree and be protected in their right to do so.

Warren Barry and his ideological soul mates would do well to understand that. And to understand, too, the simple wisdom of something Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said in 1790: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely."

Don't they see? Our country is.

Miami Herald

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