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Jewish World Review July 5, 2001/ 11 Tamuz 5761

Wesley Pruden

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The coming shortage
of offense and affront -- OUR exhausted congressmen, for whom sleeping sickness was invented and who work tirelessly to perfect self-abuse, are dawdling once more in the face of a national crisis that has no name.

Maybe it's merely Fourth of July lassitude, or the early arrival of the ides of August. Capitol Hill has become a hotbed of apathy, a redoubt of indifference, a reservoir of malaise, what the Rev. Jesse Jackson might call a limpid lagoon of languor. Maybe even a slough of despond. The scary truth is that Congress, of all our institutions, has become an embattlement of ennui.

We're running out of things to be outraged about, and Congress is wasting its time on unimportant stuff like taxes, health, defense and national security.

The tip of this iceberg, clearly one of titanic proportions, appeared through the fog of House debate only last week. Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, a Democrat who has made a substantial career of finding things to be unhappy about, spluttered helplessly on the floor of the House of Representatives trying to think of some way to take the initiative in the debate over George W.'s faith-based initiative. All he could come up with was outrage over a colleague's citation of something George Washington said.

And not about Washington's famous wooden teeth, either, nor even the scandal over the expense account the old general turned in at the end of the Revolutionary War. What got Mr. Watts' goat is the fact that the Father of Our Country, like some of the other Founding Fathers, owned slaves. Mr. Watts seemed a little sheepish about the size of the millimeters measuring the shot and shell he found to lob at the Bush initiative, recognizing the pop-gun caliber of his outrage. "I want to be very, very careful how I say this," he said of Washington's famous dictum that in America the government should give bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance. "For us to be applauding the statements discussing bigotry that were written by a person who owned slaves is a little bit more than I can, without a churning stomach, be able to tolerate."

When Mr. Watt sat down to rummage through his desk in search of a Tums to settle his churning tummy, his allies picked up the cudgel, such as it was. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who can usually be counted on for imaginative rhetoric in the deeper shades of lavender, summoned up not outrage but merely "a little chagrin" that he had not thought to make slavery an issue in the debate over whether to let God in on the fight against drugs, poverty, hip-hop and rock and roll. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (no kin, presumably, of either of the famous Confederate names she bears) chimed in to thank Mr. Watt "for reminding us that we are still in an imperfect union."

But using slavery -- the slavery that no longer exists, not the slavery still practiced in the African republics -- as a club to beat guilty liberals over the head with is so 20th century. Mr. Watt and his colleagues, such as they may be, are even reduced to following the lead of a state legislator, and not even a state senator. Rep. Henri Brooks of Memphis, a giant of the Tennessee legislature, refuses to stand with her colleagues in Nashville to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That's because, she says, "it's not one nation under God and it's not liberty and justice for all."

Mzz Brooks notes, with a certain irrefutable logic, that the Stars and Stripes, like the Stars and Bars, once fluttered over states where slavery was the practice. Some were Confederate, but not all. "This flag represents the former colonies that enslaved our ancestors, and when this flag was designed they did not have black people in mind." She's right. You could look it up. Betsy Ross earned her fame as a seamstress, not as an abolitionist.

Nevertheless, the blaze in Mzz Brooks' tummy burns with the intensity only of a backyard trash fire, and who could blame her for outrage fatigue. It's difficult to raise your ire over the stitchery of Betsy Ross after all the noble fury over Confederate iconery on the flags of Georgia and Mississippi (whilst overlooking that Confederate star, subtle as it may be, on the otherwise inoffensive flag of Arkansas). Men not yet gone to bald heads and gray beards will one day tell their grandchildren where they were on the day they hauled down the flag of Jackson-Lee -- of the Virginians, not of the gentlewoman from Texas -- from the dome of the capitol in South Carolina.

As outrage goes, this latest stuff is thin soup, without the beans. You might think several committees of Congress would already be at work on what to do about a coming shortage of indignities, affronts, aspersions and slights. It's every American's constitutional right to have something to be a victim of.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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