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There are reasons to wave the flag; America is all right

The news from Bosnia-Herzegovina last week told, yet again, of Bosnian forces attacking Serbs, who retaliated by pouring shells and rockets into Sarajevo, killing five civilians.

In Moscow, Boris Yeltsin dumped four of his cabinet ministers for mishandling the Chechen rebellion, which continues to claim the lives of Russians and Chechens alike.

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt several days ago, stepped up the pressure on Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region suspected of fostering the plot.

And so it goes in so many countries around the world, torn and bleeding from internal strife. On many days, woe seems to dominate our news pages and our evening newscasts.

And, too often, it shapes our moods, our attitudes and our optimism for the future. I suspect we in the news business bear a significant burden in this regard, being regular purveyors of pessimism.

On a recent morning in The Miami Herald newsroom, an editor taking stock of events on that particular day shared the early assessment with a gathering of colleagues. His story list included another day of breakdowns in South Florida's air traffic control radars (We could envision the headline: "Terror in the skies!", although the real one was more subdued), the arrest of an alleged serial killer (actual headline: "Police: We've got Tamiami Strangler"), the trial of teenagers charged with murdering a German tourist to get her purse, drug testing in schools and some smaller, no less dramatic, items.

"This is great stuff," the editor said without irony. "Can you imagine how boring it must be to put out a newspaper in Wichita?"

Don't get me wrong. We did have some positive news to report that day. But the fact often is that, as in Gresham's Law, the bad often drives out the good and we feel so overwhelmed by woe that we fail to celebrate what we're doing right.

Which is why I love the Fourth of July.

This is a day to be unabashedly schmaltzy about America, irrespective of your political stripes. And it's so easy to celebrate because there's no expected ritual.

We can go to a baseball game. Or not. We can have a picnic, watch a car race, bask on the beach, watch kids run through the yard with sparklers, play John Phillips Sousa _ loud _ and march around the living room (I recommend Stars and Stripes Forever as done by the old Boston Pops, Arthur Fiedler conducting, perhaps polished off with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, even though it wasn't our war), fly a flag, barbecue hot dogs, go to a hokey parade or do none of those things.

The point is that, in a world full of trouble _ and Lord knows we have enough of our own _ this is a day set aside to celebrate the fact that, over the past 220 years we have done, and still do, most things right.

Granted, we have divisions that bedevil us still. But nowhere near the league of Bosnia, Russia, South Africa or even Northern Ireland. And we're making progress on what we have.

On Saturday, Jacksonville, a Florida city many still identify as a part of the Old South, swore in a newly elected sheriff named Nathaniel Glover. Jacksonville's population is 75 percent white. Glover is black. He defeated a pair of white opponents, both with more money. But a majority of white and black voters made it clear they saw Glover, a cop for 28 years, as the best person for the job.

Today he is the first black in Florida history elected county sheriff. On July 4, that's worth a flag wave.

And we should also celebrate what we already have accomplished, things we may tend to take for granted. South Florida's congressional delegation, it's worth remembering, consists of two Cuban-Americans, two African-Americans and three European-Americans (three of whom, by the way, are Protestants; three are Roman Catholics and one is Jewish).

Another wave.

In Dade County, where Hispanics are a majority, the chairman of the Metro Commission is black. The state senator representing the southern half of the county (70 percent white and Hispanic) also is black. Again, the best people for the job.

Earlier this month, the Broward County Commission _ including four up for re-election _ voted overwhelmingly to prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and jobs. This action came despite the fact that voters five years ago had blocked a similar ordinance, claiming it gave "special rights" to gays. The commission's vote was politically gutsy, worth a wave.

Last week, South Florida mourned the deaths of two community builders, Dewey Knight and James K. Batten, one black and one white. Although saddened by the loss, we can shout hurrah for two lives spent in the purpose of bridging divisions.

Of course much work remains to be done. The news on Friday was dominated by a Supreme Court opinion that seems to threaten many, if not most, of the congressional and legislative districts drawn in 1992 for the purpose of helping minorities win elections.

This is a case in which two American ideals collide: the ideal of encouraging minority participation with the ideal of color-blind democracy. The fact that it was a 5-4 decision demonstrates how tough it is to weigh seemingly contradictory policies and come down on one side.

On this Fourth of July, I will choose to be optimistic and believe that both ideals can exist simultaneously.

Wouldn't it be worth celebrating if, in new districts drawn without regard to race, voters cast ballots as easily for candidates of a different race than for those of their own? If it can happen in Jacksonville, why not everywhere?

Lots of flag waves.

Tom Fiedler is political editor of the Miami Herald.

Knight Ridder Tribune Network