The question of what to do about 11 million immigrants who are in this country illegally has been clouded by so many distractions. Which flag should they carry during marches? Is it heresy to sing the national anthem in Spanish? Is an immigrants' rights movement a threat to the unfinished civil rights quest of blacks?
Behind all this is more than sanctimoniousness. There's a double dose of good old-fashioned hypocrisy.
Take the demand that would-be citizens pass a test on their knowledge of American traditions and laws. Plenty of American-born Ph.D.s could hardly cite entire passages of the U.S. Constitution or sections of a state's civil code.
And among those screaming about that controversial Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are no doubt some who cannot even sing the English version themselves. A recent Harris poll indicated that 61 percent of American adults don't know the words. And I'd be willing to bet that those who hold the anthem in highest regard do not know the history of the song whose melody comes from an old, British beer-drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven."
I don't know whether first lady Laura Bush understood this, or knew that the anthem has been translated into other languages throughout history, when she broke with her husband and said she takes no umbrage with a Spanish-language anthem. In any event, she was right.
Anyone familiar with a routine that Jay Leno has perfected on "The Tonight Show" is painfully aware of how ignorant so many native-born Americans are about history and geography. "Don't know much about geography" - a line from a pop tune - is their anthem. According to a recent survey by the National Geographic Society, they're not alone. Almost 60 percent of young Americans couldn't find Iraq on a map. One-third couldn't locate Louisiana.
As for history? Oh, my! Plenty of critics condemned the May 1 immigration rallies as some sort of un-American May Day activities that only the old Soviet Union and the current Cuba could appreciate. But May Day was chosen as a workers holiday internationally in honor of the labor movement's first American martyrs. It was they (in many cases immigrants) who, demanding an eight-hour work day, declared a general strike on May 1, 1886, in Chicago, triggering a chain of events including riots, mayhem, trials and executions, and, eventually, victories for ordinary working people.
Maybe the greatest advantage of being born here - of being American - is that we can proudly be know-nothings like members of a political movement of that name in the 1850s. According to The Reader's Companion to American History, the party grew out of the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and was - surprise, surprise - anti-immigrant.