On Dec. 9, 1998, Peggy Noonan spoke at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on the topic of patriotism. The follow is an excerpt from that lecture that was also included in “Leadership for America: The Principles of Conservatism.” It is very sad to read this when you understand the many truths she shared during her talk.
What about the rising generations? There is trouble there, too.
Nobody is really teaching our children to love their country. They still pick it up from their parents, from here and there, but in general, we have dropped the ball.
The schools, most of them, do not encourage patriotic feeling. Small things—so many of them do not teach the Pledge of Allegiance. Bigger things—they do not celebrate Washington’s birthday and draw pictures of him and hear stories about him as they did when we were kids. There is no Washington’s birthday; there is President’s Day, which my 11-year-old son was once under the impression is a celebration of Bill Clinton’s birthday.
Beyond that, the teaching of history has changed and has been altered all out of shape. My son is instructed far more in the sins of racism than in the virtues of Abe Lincoln. There is a school in Washington—and I almost moved there so my son could attend—that actually had pictures of Washington and Lincoln on the walls. On the wall of my son’s classroom, they had a big portrait of Frieda Kahlo.
The old historical teachings that were also moral teachings are by the boards. No teacher has ever taught my son the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. And if someone did, the kids in my son’s class would pipe up, “I know what young George said. He said, ‘It depends on what the meaning of “cut down” is!”‘
Cynicism is a virus. Our culture has been spreading it most efficiently for decades now. Our society does not teach patriotism to the young. The media do not teach it or suggest it or encourage it. When they refer to it at all, it is to show patriotism as vulgar or naive or aggressive. This is a particular problem because Hollywood tries in its own way to do the right thing, but they go off on a toot. For 30 years now they have been trying to teach us all about the imperfections of our country: America’s racist past, America’s sexist past, American injustice to the Indians. In a more balanced culture, this would be a good thing; it would be a counter to mindless flag-waving period. But there is precious little flag-waving, mindless or otherwise to counter.
What young Hollywood producers do not notice and do not think about is that they are teaching our children not only that racism is wrong—a good lesson—but that America is unregenerate on this issue of race. That in our South we have been cruel and in the North indifferent; that we are full of sin on this issue; that we have always been this way and this is what America is. Do you know what children think when they see this? They begin to think that America is not a very good country. They begin to think America is not so deserving of their love and loyalty.
When we endlessly hammer America, we tell our kids: This is not a country that deserves your loyalty. It creates cynicism and skepticism among our children, and this is bad because childhood is the only time in life when you can be fully romantic and full-hearted and starry-eyed. It is in adulthood that you should develop healthy skepticism. That skepticism balances early love, but we are not letting our kids have that early love.
In a coming crisis, down the road, will our children grown to adulthood have the thing within them that prompts them to protect their country? To protect their Constitution? What if, in that coming crisis, the best of our children have grown into adults who are somewhat ambivalent about America? A person in Hollywood might say, “Wait, it’s good their love of country isn’t based on a lack of realism.” But I have never seen any kind of love that lasted without a little lack of realism.
I would add, parenthetically, that the internationalization of American culture, the fact that the whole world watches our television shows and our movies, the fact that they get their sense of who we are from the media we send them, means that they are changing and have changed in their attitudes toward us as a people. They are not allowed to have illusions about us either.
Recently, on television, I saw in a news story American troops in a helicopter airlifting people of another country—I think it was the Philippines—out of the way of a hurricane. They were saving them from rampaging floods. As the Americans bravely herded the imperiled people onto the American helicopters, it looked like an old war movie. For a moment, I thought of the feelings the people being saved would have had in an old war movie—people in France in 1944, in Italy, in Germany in 1945. They would have had thoughts like, “Oh, thank you, Lord; the Americans are here with their famous idealism and plain rectitude! They’ve brought us food.”
But it’s 1999. They’ve seen our culture, and now I imagine it would be more like, “The producers of Melrose Place are here; the makers of Bride of Chucky have landed! Come, neighbors; maybe they’ve brought us some pornography. Get to the helicopter!” We should think more about what the people of the world conclude about us from the media we send them. It actually—and I mean this seriously—has implications for our future in the world.
So the old are turning off and turning away, and the young are not being taught love of America—and neither are our new immigrants.
The pickle jar as far back as I can remember sat on the floor beside the dresser in my parents’ bedroom.
When he got ready for bed, Dad would empty his pockets and toss his coins into the jar. As a small boy, I was always fascinated at the sounds the coins made as they were dropped into the jar. They landed with a merry jingle when the jar was almost empty. Then the tones gradually muted to a dull thud as the jar was filled.
I used to squat on the floor in front of the jar to admire the copper and silver circles that glinted like a pirate’s treasure when the sun poured through the bedroom window.
When the jar was filled, Dad would sit at the kitchen table and roll the coins before taking them to the bank. Taking the coins to the bank was always a big production. Stacked neatly in a small cardboard box, the coins were placed between Dad and me on the seat of his old truck.
Each and every time, as we drove to the bank, Dad would look at me hopefully. ‘Those coins are going to keep you out of the textile mill, son. You’re going to do better than me. This old mill town’s not going to hold you back.’ Also, each and every time, as he slid the box of rolled coins across the counter at the bank toward the cashier, he would grin proudly. these are for my son’s college fund. He’ll never work at the mill all his life like me.’
We would always celebrate each deposit by stopping for an ice cream cone. I always got chocolate. Dad always got vanilla. When the clerk at the ice cream parlor handed Dad his change, he would show me the few coins nestled in his palm. When we get home, we’ll start filling the jar again.’ He always let me drop the first coins into the empty jar. As they rattled around with a brief, happy jingle, we grinned at each other. ‘You’ll get to college on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters,’ he said. ‘But you’ll get there; I’ll see to that.
No matter how rough things got at home, Dad continued to doggedly drop his coins into the jar. Even the summer when Dad got laid off from the mill, and Mama had to serve dried beans several times a week, not a single dime was taken from the jar.
To the contrary, as Dad looked across the table at me, pouring catsup over my beans to make them more palatable, he became more determined than ever to make a way out for me, when you finish college, Son, he told me, his eyes glistening, You’ll never have to eat beans again – unless you want to.’
The years passed, and I finished college and took a job in another town. Once, while visiting my parents, I used the phone in their bedroom, and noticed that the pickle jar was gone. It had served its purpose and had been removed.
A lump rose in my throat as I stared at the spot beside the dresser where the jar had always stood. My dad was a man of few words: he never lectured me on the values of determination, perseverance, and faith. The pickle jar had taught me all these virtues far more eloquently than the most flowery of words could have done.
When I married, I told my wife Susan about the significant part the lowly pickle jar had played in my life as a boy. In my mind, it defined, more than anything else, how much my dad had loved me.
The first Christmas after our daughter Jessica was born, we spent the holiday with my parents. After dinner, Mom and Dad sat next to each other on the sofa, taking turns cuddling their first grandchild. Jessica began to whimper softly, and Susan took her from Dad’s arms. ‘She probably needs to be changed,’ she said, carrying the baby into my parents’ bedroom to diaper her. When Susan came back into the living room, there was a strange mist in her eyes.
She handed Jessica back to Dad before taking my hand and leading me into the room. ‘Look,’ she said softly, her eyes directing me to a spot on the floor beside the dresser. To my amazement, there, as if it had never been removed, stood the old pickle jar, the bottom already covered with coins..
I walked over to the pickle jar, dug down into my pocket, and pulled out a fistful of coins. With a gamut of emotions choking me, I dropped the coins into the jar. I looked up and saw that Dad, carrying Jessica, had slipped quietly into the room. Our eyes locked, and I knew he was feeling the same emotions I felt. Neither one of us could speak.
This truly touched my heart. Sometimes we are so busy adding up our troubles that we forget to count our blessings. Never underestimate the power of your actions. With one small gesture you can change a person’s life, for better or for worse.