Thursday, December 29, 2005

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag?

Yesterday marked the 60th birthday of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was officially recognized by Congress on December 28, 1945. The Pledge has been a source of great controversy lately, with the words "under God" being challenged as a violation of the US Constitution's anti-establishment clause. But that controversy, while important insofar as it speaks to the issue of whether or not a person must recognize the existence and supremacy of a deity to be a good citizen of a secular nation, may blind us to the greater trouble with the Pledge of Allegiance.

I remember in elementary school being forced (though socially more than officially - I never had the inclination or the courage to challenge this practice) to recite the Pledge from memory. Its words - much like the words to the Lord's Prayer or the Apostle's Creed at church - were burned into my brain against my will. Did that forced and rote recitation ensure that I would be a loyal citizen of the United States of America? I doubt it. In fact, other than perhaps having some sort of unconscious symbolic value, I can't see what saying the Pledge did other than reinforce a sense of powerlessness in the face of authority.

In our country at this moment feeling powerless in the face of authority is a very dangerous thing. The executive branch of our government, inexplicably still feeling drunk on its post 9-11 glory despite a string of abject failures, is testing the limits of its power. US citizens inside the United States are being spied on by our government without warrants and without the consent of the legislative or judicial branches of our government. US citizens are being held indefinitely as so-called "enemy combatants" without legal recourse on the orders of the executive branch.

These breaches of civil liberties (even civil rights!) are being brought about by the unilateral decree of a single branch of the government, which grows increasingly unchecked by the other two branches. This expansion of executive power - supposedly necessitated by our perpetual war against an idea and our unjust war in Iraq - makes me fear that the real purpose of the Pledge is to subtly train the resistance out of our children before they have a chance to cry "foul" at the injustices being perpetrated in their and our names.

But, even if that is not the case, I still don't like the Pledge of Allegiance. This is not because I don't feel loyal to our country. I am a loyal citizen of the United States - though I feel that part of my loyalty to this country is to hold it morally accountable when it tramples the God-given freedoms of its citizens and members of the international community. I don't like the Pledge of Allegiance, first and foremost not for any ideological reason, but simply because, on the surface, it doesn't make any sense.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag..." The flag! I have just sworn my undying allegiance to a piece of fabric! I know that I have been getting on my own religious community for being too literal minded and not seeing symbolism, but come on! I don't see another way to take that statement. Before you pledge your allegiance to the nation for which the flag stands, thus obtaining the symbolic value of the flag, you have to pledge your allegiance to the flag itself.

But how would that flag hold you to your oath? What would that flag get from your allegiance, and what would it offer in return?

I'm not saying that the language of the Pledge is some kind of evil scheme to get us to idolatrously pledge ourselves to fabric. Rather I'm saying that aside from being an unnecessary imposition on the free wills of children, the Pledge of Allegiance is a shabby and hastily written composition which is literally meaningless because it binds us by our oath to a piece of fabric.

Oh, well... Happy birthday, Pledge. Now, go away!


Brian Cubbage said...

I think that the symbolism of pledging allegiance to the flag is even worse than the absurdity of taking the Pledge literally. Pledging allegiance to a flag is patently militaristic-- a throwback to the era of land combat in which armies would charge in battle under a battle flag. That's probably lost on schoolchildren these days, especially since wars are waged differently these days, but that's the history of it, and it's not a particularly pretty one.

This brings me to the balance of powers issue you mention, Chris. You're right that the executive branch has become rather muscular under G.W. Bush. However, the executive branch picked up a lot of that power under Clinton, who simply didn't assert it as controversially as Bush has. (There have been some good articles in the Washington Post recently about this.) Our chief executive is still quite powerful even in the most restrictive eras-- the Constitution gave the executive branch a LOT of power. But aside from these issues, I think that it's still too easy to blame the Bush administration alone for what has happened. They share a large proportion of the blame, but I think that there is some room for collective responsibility here. Bush and Co. wouldn't have been able to do what they did without significant popular support, especially in the South, Midwest, and West, which in turn gave Bush and Co. leverage with Congress (especially the Senate).

Gore Vidal says a lot of crazy things, but he is right about one thing: to the extent that there is an American people, it revels in war. It owes its superpower status to it; its government and economy are premised upon preparing for it; most of its pastimes are symbolic re-enactments of it; its national discourse is saturated with martial metaphors (like our friend the Pledge). If we are going to criticize Bush and Co. for what they have done (and we definitely should), I think we should also be prepared to take a long, hard look within and take on some of the blame ourselves. I feel uncomfortable doing that, but I don't see much of an alternative.

Princess Pinky said...

The pledge has never made much sense to me. Even as a child (with a vet for a father) I felt uncomfortable reciting it, though I could not articulate why. When I was in elementary school my third grade teacher told me that if I felt uncomfortable with something, even if all around me were doing it then I should not do it. She said there must be a reason for these unsettling feelings I was having. She told me to stand respectfully with my hands at my sides and stay quiet while those who wished to recite the pledge did so.

Princess Pinky said...

sorry there was an interuption...
I shall go on.

I still feel that I cannot recite the pledge. My father said it was an act of rebellion. As an adult I see that was indeed true, though not as he meant it. He thought that I refused the pledge in order to disrespect him. That was not my intention. I do respect those who boldly go out and do their sworn duty for our nation (although most of the time I do not respect those who decide what those duties are). The reaason that I was uncomfortable as a child and still am as an adult is the gavity of swearing your allegiance to something. I will continue to rebell against the idea that we are forced to swear our allegiance (even if only by peer pressure) to something, particularly what that scrap of fabric represents today... A country obsessed with getting their way all over the world and raping the environment of all its resources (damn the consequences)in order to support our endless disire for more.
As children in other parts of our world die because they can't get a vaccine that cost less than a can of coke we slap magnetic flags and ribbons all over our overpriced gas guzelling vehicles and drive to the mall and continue blindly living our empty and meaningless consumer driven lives.

Sandalstraps said...

When Princess Pinky, queen of the mall, says that we are too consumer driven as a society, we really should listen!

Brian and Shannon have both blessed us with some real insight. Brian continually makes me wish that I did more research before I write (though some people might say I do too much research already, considering this is a blog!) And Shannon has shown us a great deal of moral courage.

Brian says that each of us bear some responcibility for the state of our nation, and he is right. While the conservatives (particularly since Ronald Reagan) have tried to convince us that government is the enemy, we as citizens of a rebublic have to understand that ultimately we are the government, and the government is us.

The Bush administration did not create America, but America did create, and elect (and re-elect)the Bush administration. When I look in the mirror I understand that I participate in a system which empowers these people, and so I am responsible in part for their actions.

We must reclaim America, and to do so we will need to do a fair amount more that just villify the Bushites. We must build up a constructive vision to rival the clear (even if clearly harmful) vision that conservatives have cast.

Part of that vision must include not merely protesting wars but providing alternative means to accomplish many of the objectives which wars are designed to accomplish. And when those objectives, like the means used to obtain them, are unjust, we must identify more noble objectives and work to obtain them.

Violence - an American tradition - is mostly a form of communication used when other forms of communication break down. Those of us who decry the use of violence must model more effective communication, so that there is no longer any excuse to engage in unjust wars of choice.

Of course, if I knew how to do this I would be doing something more constructive with my life than this.