The sad truth is, kids are easy targets when it comes to ideological inculcation outside the home. This time-honored strategy of ‘getting them while they’re young’ may have first been written down in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”), but it’s a gambit that is surely much older than that. And so I was heartened to read of the South Portland, Maine girls who recently put their feet down re. the pledge of allegiance, which, I understand, is something SoPo kids — and most American high schoolers — are still expected to recite each and every morning.
Over the public address system, students at South Portland High School hear the same sort of thing we all grew up hearing: At this time, would you please rise and join me for the pledge of allegiance…
In late January, however, the class president, Lily SanGiovanni, made the decision to start adding what proved to be a controversial 4-word tagline … if you’d like to.
Naturally, in this country so volubly dedicated to liberty and free speech, people freaked out. Love of country was questioned. Ingratitude to fallen soldiers was charged. Educational bureaucrats wavered, then caved. The four words were eliminated.
What a steaming pile of crapola.
It’s probably been a while since most adults have taken a close look at the U.S. pledge of allegiance, or given it much thought. Revealingly, our culture does not ask adults to say these words, every morning, Monday through Friday — only our children are required to do that (if they go to public, taxpayer-funded schools). Still, we old folks can all recite it by heart: I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
There. I did that from memory (!). See how impressionable young minds are, over the long term? … But seriously folks, it’s instructive to examine this pledge, in the same way SanGiovanni and two of her classmates have done. They were uncomfortable with the invocation of a Christian God, every day, as part of a public statement that students enrolled in government schools are obliged/encouraged to recite every day. They have a point, but that’s not the half of it.
Let’s start with the name: Exactly what sort of authorities, in a democratic republic, would suggest that adult citizens make such a pledge? In my view, it’s not something free peoples should ever be asked to do — especially kids, whose feelings on these matters should formed by parents, not the state. This practice strikes me as something illegitimate or otherwise authoritarian “regimes” would insist upon: maybe the Czech government in 1967, or the Khmer Rouge circa 1975, or Josef Stalin any ol’ time.
In fact, see here the Oath of Allegiance Grandpa Joe did require of the Soviet people, starting in 1939: I, a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, joining the ranks of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, do hereby take the oath of allegiance and do solemnly vow to be an honest, brave, disciplined and vigilant fighter, to guard strictly all military and State secrets, to obey implicitly all Army regulations and orders of my commanders, commissars and superiors. I vow to study the duties of a soldier conscientiously, to safeguard Army and National property in every way possible and to be true to my People, my Soviet Motherland, and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government to my last breath. I am always prepared at the order of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government to come to the defense of my Motherland — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — and, as a fighter of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, I vow to defend her courageously, skillfully, creditably and honorably, without sparing my blood and my very life to achieve complete victory over the enemy. And if through evil intent I break this solemn oath, then let the stern punishment of the Soviet law, and the universal hatred and contempt of the working people, fall upon me.
Joe’s one-time running mate, Adolph Hitler, cooked up one of these pledges, too: I swear by God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.
Clearly, the wording in each of these examples is more martial and paranoid than the American pledge. The sentiments may differ, too (though only by matters of degree). But let’s stick to the idea of a nation instituting and maintaining any sort of pledge. This strikes me as a cultural tradition totally at odds with the ideals of a free, democratic republic. In America, we don’t brook regimes or people or symbols to which/whom allegiance must be sworn, right?
It’s not wrong to use a symbol, such as the flag, to represent things like the current government, past governments, founding governments, fallen soldiers, the collectivity of our “nation”, God, our indivisibility, or laudable-but-still-abstract concepts like liberty and justice. But swearing allegiance to that flag, which is symbolic of all these things?
We can agree these are big, complicated ideas about which reasonable adults might differ: I don’t think America is a nation under God, for example; others believe that steadfastly. Indivisible? We had a civil war in the 19th century, and today the country is politically divided to a shocking degree. Some would argue our political system is by nature and design adversarial.
The point is, we don’t ask adult Americans to make this pledge. Yet we ask it every day of school children. I find this unsettling, and so do The SoPo Three.
We tend to think that cultural ornaments like the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem have always been in place. Not the case. Somehow, America got along for more than a century without any such thing as a pledge of allegiance. It was penned by one Francis Bellamy, in 1892. American history up to that point was no bed of roses. Citizens endured a war of independence, a foreign invasion (1812) and a civil war; they controversially replaced a loose confederation with a federal, constitutional government. Somehow, despite a state’s rights debate that raged throughout (and still rages), republican life during this long period did not require a pledge of allegiance.
Bellamy, a magazine writer with overt socialist sympathies, had in fact intended the pledge to serve children of all nations, not just those living in America. Again, we see here the insidious idea that it’s most important that patriotic messaging be delivered to children, i.e. those most impressionable citizens, those with the least power to object, those with the least context or understanding of what living in a republic actually means or should mean. Our brave friends in South Portland notwithstanding, most kids don’t have a complete understanding of the inalienable rights they have as Americans, nor do they realize when those rights (to freedom of thought, speech and religion, for example) are being stomped upon.
In any case, the U.S. pledge did, upon its introduction, become wildly popular — no surprise in a country that would soon encounter a world war, the rise of worker’s movements, a worldwide depression, and ultimately another world war. History shows us that cultural insecurity, real and imagined, is what foments the call for such pledges. Notice how these various oaths nearly always get adopted and enforced in conjunction with war, or coming war. I suppose that in 1939, Stalin needed to know exactly who could be trusted. Ditto for our pal The Fuhrer.
I ask zealous supporters of the U.S. pledge, Is this something we Americans need to know about each other? Is it something we have a right to know? In peacetime? How about ever?
Thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were, of course, famously and forcibly interned at the outbreak of World War II. In 1943, all internees over the age of 17 were given a loyalty “test”. They were asked two questions:
Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? (Women were asked if they were willing to volunteer for the Army Nurse Corps or Women’s Army Corps.)
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?
Many Japanese did take this oath and served the country accordingly. But only after languishing in the camps for two years — an incentive to take the pledge and get out of there. One wonders what they thought, after the war, when their kids were obliged to recite the pledge of allegiance. Probably rang a little hollow.
Here’s another fun fact that sheds light on the arbitrary nature of the American pledge phenomenon. Originally, the “salute” that accompanied the pledge was remarkably similar to that of the Hitler’s. We solved this uncomfortable coincidence, in 1942, by insisting the right hand instead be placed over one’s heart. Phew! Awkwardness avoided… It wasn’t until three years later that Congress formally adopted and named the pledge (it had prior been known, widely, as Bellamy’s Salute). So, officially, The United States of America went 169 years without a pledge of allegiance… In 1954, the phrase under God was added, as we were then locked in a Cold War with godless heathen (the sort of regime that, one assumes, Bellamy, the socialist, would’ve supported on some level).
Now that Communism has been defeated and debunked, maybe that last phrase should be removed? Or, now that we’re in a long-term struggle with Islamic Jihadism, perhaps it should be strengthened to read under the Christian God?
One thing’s clear: Over the course of more than 120 years, the pledge has been shown to be an absurd, makeshift and overtly political phenomenon. So again, hats off to this trio of SoPo students who publicly and with righteousness called “bullshit”. Indeed, it was the “under God” bit that struck them as a blatant violation of the separation of church and state, which, of course, it is.
Any ambivalence I may have had toward the pledge is made that much deeper by its enthusiastic, cave-dwelling supporters. Not surprisingly, the SoPo flap inspired some classic reactionary claptrap.
“So much for the All American city,” wrote Rob Soucy, in a letter to the Portland Press-Herald. “Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance is OPTIONAL for students at South Portland High School. So, let me get this straight, we just spent $47 million of taxpayer money on a Taj Mahal school renovation and the kids (of families that probably don’t have to pay taxes to begin with) can’t be forced to stand for 30 freaking seconds to honor the symbol of the country they live in and off! Are you kidding me?”
Note the troglodytic assumption that these kids — the ones who added the if you’d like to tagline — were somehow un-American, or, even worse, poor! Or maybe he meant to imply they were recent immigrants who, despite the fact that our country is entirely peopled by immigrants, don’t count or should not enjoy the rights we longstanding Americans have (rights that cost the taxpayer nothing, I might add). Another fool commenter drove home the alien angle: “I say (send) them back where (they) came from – they must like war better than freedom.”
Freedom to do what? Speak their minds?
It seems to me the by-rote recitation of anything, especially something that purports to be meaningful, effectively saps that meaning. It also seems to me that declarations of fealty, or love, or anything meaningful should not be something that someone else wrote for you. Christian prayer used to be mandatory and pervasive in public schools. We got rid of that — such things should be done in the home, or a church of one’s choosing, or not at all.
Maybe that’s where the pledge should be made — at home, every day before getting on the bus. Or every morning at Rob Soucy’s house.
To be fair, the appropriate and lawful place of the pledge in American society is, like the pledge itself, a work in progress. As the Portland Press-Herald reported on Feb. 24, California school officials apologized last fall after a student, an atheist, reported that a teacher compelled him to recite the pledge. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last spring that reciting the words “under God” in the pledge doesn’t discriminate against non-religious students who hear it. Under a Maine law passed in 2011, public schools must allow every student “the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at some point during a school day in which students are required to attend,” but they cannot require students to say the pledge.
One hundred and twenty years on, and we’re still working this out. Prior to 1892, Americans surely bickered about many things, but how and when kids are compelled to pledge fealty to the nation, or not, was not among them.
Yet a 1985 Maine law reveals the unvarnished, modern motivation behind the pledge. It stipulates that educators shall “impress upon the youth by suitable references and observances the significance of the flag, to teach them the cost, the object and principles of our government, the inestimable sacrifices made by the founders of our nation, the important contribution made by all who have served in the armed services of our country since its inception, and to teach them to love, honor and respect the flag of our country that costs so much and is so dear to every true American citizen.”
Wow. That last bit is, again, something we might expect from some totalitarian regime looking to prop up its base of support, in light of a dubious claim on power. That is not how I view the U.S. government. I guess I’m more of a We The People guy.
Further, it seems to me The SoPo Three have, through their actions, done a superb job in impressing upon their classmates one very important “object and principle” of our government — the right to speak and think as they please.
I have to say, too, that I was especially struck by the leader of this pack down in South Portland. SanGiovanni is the class valedictorian and class president, two positions that earned her the right to address her fellow students each morning, apparently. She’s headed off to Wesleyan University in the fall, where I matriculated, and where many a deep-seated suspicion of ritualized government propaganda has been burnished.
Lily: You’re gonna fit right in.