The rising tide of anti-symbolism

The purple finch is New Hampshire’s official state bird, the white-tailed deer its official animal, the pumpkin its official fruit and the white birch its official tree.

Official amphibian? The spotted newt. Official flower? The purple lilac. Official sport? Skiing. Official song? There are 10 of them. And the next time you sip apple cider, you’ll be drinking the state’s beverage.

Don’t look for a state dog, though. Although 10 states have one, New Hampshire does not. Thirty states have an official fossil, but not “The Granite State” – which is our official nickname. And unlike our Bay State neighbors, who lead the nation with 44 official categories, we don’t have an official state cookie, doughnut, muffin, berry, bean or soil.

However, the number of official New Hampshire symbols is likely to grow by two this year if legislation moving through the Senate becomes law. The bill would likely have slipped under the radar if not for the unfortunate experience of a fourth-grade class from the Lincoln Akerman School in North Hampton that saw its civics project to get the red-tailed hawk designated as New Hampshire’s official raptor be ridiculed and rejected in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, no less, visited the students on Tuesday to apologize and urged them not to lose faith in government because of a few rude legislators. Sen. Jeff Woodburn plans on attaching the hawk language to a bill seeking to name the bobcat the state’s official wildcat to “right a serious wrong.” Considering the negative national attention surrounding its initial rejection of the measure, it’s unlikely it will fail the second time around.

Somewhat lost in the initial House defeat of the red-tailed hawk bill was the valid issue: At what point does the exercise of designating official symbols become frivolous? After all, does New Hampshire really need an official dog or an official tartan? How would life in the “Live Free or Die” state be diminished if they didn’t exist?

The rising tide of anti-symbol sentiment isn’t limited to New Hampshire. A Missouri lawmaker wants to cap that state’s official symbols at its current 28. Apparently, efforts this year to anoint “Jim the Wonder Dog” as state Wonder Dog and “Old Drum” as the state historical dog pushed him over the edge.

“We could probably come up with many, many more,” Rep. Tom Flanigan told the website MissouriNet, “However, you diminish the ones you’ve already decided were state symbols.”

All this is not to say there aren’t plenty of other self-indulgent and silly bills filed each session that can be fairly characterized as a waste of the New Hampshire Legislature’s time. With 424 lawmakers all submitting legislation, a few clunkers are going to slip through.

Nor are we suggesting the Legislature should never consider legislation that isn’t totally serious. But the once-novel idea of having students shepherd essentially meaningless bills to become law as an exercise in attaining a better understanding of government has worn out its welcome.

One alternative would be for students to work with lawmakers to craft serious legislative proposals aimed at improving the lives of residents rather than writing fluff legislation that’s quickly forgotten once it passes.

If you truly want to encourage young people to stay engaged with government, have them embrace initiatives of consequence they can point to years later with pride at having made their state a better place to live.