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Americans sure do get worked up on minutiae

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 3, 2001

One of the surest signs of a healthy society is its ability to fascinate itself with minutiae.

Countries where monsoon rains and mudslides routinely devastate entire cities and villages burying hundreds and thousands of people alive; countries where distasteful phrases like "ethnic cleansing" can work their way into the language of government policy; countries where women can be punished for driving a car or showing their faces in public . . . those countries have real problems.

But then there are countries -- the United States included -- where a serious downturn in the economy means, mostly, a reduction in refrigerator sales, and the populaces spend as much time whining as other human beings spend trying to stay alive. Those types of countries would be more entertaining if they were less pathetic.

Our neighbors can be more excited by less important things than natives of any other country I have visited.

I interviewed a woman once who had stalked a young couple in her adults-only trailer park for months in attempts to prove that they had a baby. She even walked proudly into my office one day with proof of her neighbors' outlaw fecundity, empty baby food bottles she had taken from their garbage.

There were, it turned out, two lessons to be learned. One is that if you are going through you neighbor's garbage to get the goods on them, you really need to grab the reins and start working on getting a life.

The second is that some people with ulcers, like the male member of the childless couple, eat baby food.

Here lately the favorite Central Florida teapot tempest seems to be flag oriented.

You used to be able to get away with just calling someone a flag-waver. Now you have to be much more specific about what color the flag is, how big it is, what country it represents and how many people's underwear will it get in a bunch.

Last year up Inverness way, ex-judge Gary Graham was embroiled in a major dispute with the Inverness Development Services director over where and how tall a flagpole at his Courthouse Square law office could be.

Graham was stymied on one site because the architecture police said his flag would clash with the historic architecture in the downtown area.

A second proposal was vetoed because of parking problems.

After the requisite amount of obligatory snarling necessary in such matters, Graham finally got his flagpole. My Inverness sources say he hasn't used it in the year since then.

Hernando County, always in the running for flag hysteria capital of the state, was all in a tizzy in May because a businessman whose company does business with Taiwan and China, dared to fly their flags, along with an American flag, at his headquarters at the Hernando County Airpark. I wrote a column describing the anti-Chinese protesters as the International Brotherhood of Persons With Way Too Much Time on Their Hands.

You would have thought that I had come out in favor of kitten mutilation, gun confiscation, and strong laws keeping redneck morons from driving around with kids in the beds of their pickup trucks. (Okay, I actually am in favor of those last two).

I got more hate mail on that one column than I have gotten on all other subjects combined in the last year.

Good, that's how I know they are reading or at least being read to.

And I was willing to let it all go at that point too, until the strange case of H&H Motors came up.

H&H Motors is a Crystal River car dealership. When the owner's advertising banners were declared illegal by a new sign ordinance, he replaced them with American flags.

Turns out that in Hernando County there are folks who want to keep you from having Chinese (and in some cases, Canadian) flags, but in Citrus they will jump on you if you have too many American flags.

And 18, in fact more than one per business, is verboten there.

Businesses can fly flags of a state, city, POW/MIA flag and one American flag, and that's it.

Ain't that weird?

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