Thursday, March 2, 2006

Five Simpsons, five freedoms

American popular culture is a wonderful thing. Any place in the world you might go, someone there will recognize something you wear or do or say -- some fundamental aspect of leisure and entertainment -- that identifies you, for better or worse, as an American.

And those same indelibly American artifacts are just as likely to turn up on their own anywhere on our green beleaguered planet, with little or no explanation or context for how they got there. A street urchin in Tangier sprints down the street wearing a logo T-shirt from the "Thriller" era of Michael Jackson. Children dodging bullets in the West Bank wear jerseys and T-shirts recalling Michael Jordan's time astride the world of professional basketball.

To borrow and tweak a phrase from the (otherwise forgettable) movie "Buckaroo Banzai," wherever you go, America ... there you are.

That kind of ubiquity of pop-cultural knowledge exists right here at home, too, apparently to the exclusion of things American citizens should probably know at least as much about.

A new study by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five family members of "The Simpsons" animated TV show, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

Only one in four Americans, the survey found, can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (for the record, they are freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition for redress of grievances).

It gets worse (or stranger). The McCormick survey found that more people could identify the three judges on Fox's “American Idol” reality show than could identify three First Amendment rights.

Weirder still? About one in five people thought the right to own a pet was protected under the Constitution.

It would be too easy, almost a reflex, to shake our heads and call it a low-down civic shame. But there's an opportunity here: Constitutional scholars should enlist the assistance of Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons animation and marketing empirium, in creating a videoclass on the basic workings of the U.S. Constitution. Why? In order to improve on a more or less imperfectly informed union, by reaching people where they live.

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