The first thing that happens every morning in many US elementary schools, and at most formal government meetings, is the shuffling of feet, a placement of hands over hearts, and a rote droning of the pledge of allegiance while looking in the general direction of the flag. It’s become such an automatic part of US society that just hearing the words ‘pledge of allegiance’ may provoke a Pavlovian response in some US readers, the words echoing in their heads involuntarily.
I’ve never said the pledge of allegiance, and I doubt that I ever will. In a year when people are talking about whether it’s ‘disrespectful’ or ‘unpatriotic’ to fail to perform patriotism in the right ways, it is perhaps more necessary than ever for those of us who don’t recite the pledge, or stand for the anthem, to articulate the reasons why. Not because we should have to explain ourselves, but because the people who do things should have to explain themselves. Is this a pro-forma, dispassionate thing you do because everyone else is doing it? Why?
When I started school in the United States, my father walked me the few blocks to the elementary school and tried to prepare me for an assortment of things to soothe fluttering nerves. Right before we reached the doors, he pulled me out of the stream of students heading into the classroom and squatted on the sidewalk in front of me. He explained that our teacher would probably have us get up and recite something called the ‘pledge of allegiance.’
My father didn’t tell me whether I should say it or not, but he did explain that it was a serious and important thing, and that it shouldn’t be taken lightly. He noted that schoolchildren in most other countries do not start the day off with a patriotic oath. He talked about the symbolism of the flag and its importance, and told me that our family had fought and in some cases died for what the flag and the pledge represented. He told me that this was more than some words you recite while staring vacantly towards the front of the classroom, that while it might not act like a legally binding oath, it should be treated as more than an empty gesture.
The bell rang and I had to dash inside, but I turned my father’s words over in my head and when our teacher had us all rise for the pledge, I sat. I don’t think she noticed, because I was towards the back of the room, although other students did. I kept thinking and thinking about what the whole thing meant, and I kept sitting through it, every morning. She finally did notice and frowned, but I wasn’t doing anything disruptive, and so she waited to spring her trap until parent-teacher conference day, when she informed my father than I was sitting through the pledge of allegiance and would he please do something about it, and he said ‘why?’
I never once rose for the pledge in my school years, choosing instead to sit with my hands folded in my lap. At city council meetings, which always open with the pledge, while everyone else stands I set my phone down, fold my hands, and sit quietly. When I have jury duty, which also opens with the pledge, I also sit through it, though I rise to be sworn in with the rest of the jury pool. It is very common for people to give me considerable sideeye for doing this — only once have I been in a room where someone else sat through the pledge of allegiance, and I have gone to a lot of government proceedings in my lifetime.
When I hear people droning the pledge of allegiance, it makes me twitchy: Yeah, it’s just some words that people say in front of the flag, what’s the big deal? Okay, if it’s not a big deal, why does it matter when people choose not to say them? Why is it included at the opening of nearly every government event imaginable? That suggests that it has symbolic and cultural importance, which it does.
I strongly dislike nationalism, and the pledge of allegiance strikes me as a rank form of flag-worshipping nationalism: Performance of loyalty without thought or consideration. Most people do it because everyone else is doing it and they feel like they’re supposed to. The people who get upset about it are usually the kind of people who talk big talk about displays of loyalty and respect but don’t actually do anything for this country — the people who glare at me for sitting out the pledge fly tattered, faded, stained US flags from their car antennae. Which of us is being more disrespectful?
Aside from the ‘under G-d’ controversy, the pledge of allegiance strikes me as a kind of dangerous loyalty oath, especially when it’s inculcated at such a young age, with no real explanation or discussion about its meaning. The pledge of allegiance was written for the purpose of patriotic display, specifically targeting children. These kinds of stepping stones, of rote honours and rituals rendered by people too young to understand them, are the building blocks of uglier and more troubling things.
I don’t say the pledge of allegiance because I don’t like what it stands for, because when I say an oath, I mean it, and because it is frivolous and offensive to require people to say an oath as a patriotic performance.
Image: Rep. Joe Schmick during the pledge of allegiance on the House floor, Washington State House Republicans, Flickr