What's a Real Patriot to Do?

GEORGE F. WILL

February 10, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Hilda Gage, a judge in Pontiac, Michigan, was moved, she says, ''by a sense of patriotism and concern for the economy,'' when she recently sentenced a chronic speeder, who is an automobile test driver, to drive only American cars.

Well. Can he drive a 1992 Ford Crown Victoria? It is assembled in Canada with parts from America, Japan, Mexico, Britain, Spain and Germany. Can he drive a Chevrolet Geo Metro, which is made by Suzuki and Isuzu?

Pity the poor Michigander who must enforce the rule banishing foreign cars to the back of the parking lot at one automobile plant. Where does he send a Mercury Grand Marquis, which has the same polyglot pedigree as the Crown Victoria? Where does he send a Mazda Navajo? Aside from the nameplate, it is a Ford Explorer, made by Ford in Kentucky. Let's consider Jaguars (Ford owns the company) and Saabs (GM owns 50 percent) fit only for traitors, but Toyota Corollas are made by a GM-Toyota joint venture in California. Can they park up front?

You can't tell the traitors without a scorecard, or even with one. Ford Festivas are Korean-made and Mercury Tracers are made in Mexico. Some GM cars have more Japanese components than some Japanese cars do. So what distinctions are made by the St. Louis barber who gives a customers a $1 discount if they arrive in American cars? Or the Edwardsville, Ill., gas-station owner who gives a 2-cents-a-gallon discount to drivers of American cars?

Toyota has sought the protection of the coach of Da Bears, Mike Ditka. (He is a product of Polish exports to America.) He has made a television ad saying, approximately, lay off the Japanese or I'll break your knees. Eight Japanese automobile companies have spent $9 billion building U.S. plants that employ 30,000 Americans and sustain several times that many jobs among suppliers. Small wonder that several states have given huge subsidies to lure such plants.

In an age when a Ford Probe is a Mazda MX-6 and a Mitsubishi Eclipse is a Plymouth Laser, what's a real patriot to do? Have a beer -- domestic, please -- and watch a little TV on a patriotic Zenith. Trouble is, it's made in Mexico, whereas Mitsubishi is made in Santa Anna, California, by more than 600 of the 58,000 Americans employed in manufacturing by Japanese firms in Southern California.

Forty percent of all Japanese-brand vehicles sold in America are made in America. But a tire dealer in Fremont, Ohio, won't sell tires to owners of foreign cars. That'll teach 'em.

Teach who? Teach what? Shut up and salute the flag, even it is being waved by some people whose interests are more pecuniary than patriotic.

The Congressional Automotive Caucus, composed of members from auto-producing states, has a bill to give a tax credit of up to $2,000, equal to 15 percent of the price, to buyers of American cars. This subsidy -- hey, what is $10 billion among friends? -- is not pleasing to U.S. car dealers, 90 percent of whom sell some foreign vehicles. They are talking about -- for purely patriotic reasons, of course -- a tax credit to anyone trading in a car eight years old or older. (There are 74 million of them.)

But what about dirt excavators? Greece, New York, recently contemplated paying more for a John Deere than for a Japanese brand. Trouble is, the latter was made in America and the former in Japan.

Time was when things were simpler.

Non-importation is nothing new. In response to the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767) the colonists discouraged -- by persuasion if possible; by publicity and ostracism if necessary; sometimes by mobs -- importation of British goods.

Granted, some people were more interested in capturing markets than in defending political principles. But the striking contrast between then and now is the emphasis back then on elevated values.

Non-importation was linked to moral revival, to a turning away from luxury, extravagance and dissipation and toward thrift and industry, all in the interest of liberty. Sewing bees, the wearing of homespun cloth, avoidance of imported teas and wines were ways of linking non-importation to virtues, and of linking Americans' virtues with America's strength and freedom.

Robert Middlekauff, in his history of the American Revolution (''The Glorious Cause,'' a volume in the Oxford History of the United States), emphasizes that economic measures such as non-importation were broadly viewed as means to higher ends. With non-importation, Americans were summoned to values higher than mere commercial advantage. They were called upon ''to consider what sort of people they were.''

In light of today's whiny exploitation of anti-Japanese passions, what kind of people are we?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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