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April 14, 2007

The Pledge Frees

Originally published at Open Source Politics on 17 October, 2003.

I plead alignment to the flakes, of the untitled snakes of a merry cow, and to the republicans, for which they scam, one nacho, underpants, with licorice and jugs of wine for owls. - Matt Groening, School is Hell

Just in case you missed the gigantic clue above: if you’re looking for thoughtful analysis on the US Supreme Court taking up the issue of the Pledge of Allegiance, don’t read this. Instead check out Lilith’s excellent post from earlier this week.  She’s a lawyer and everything, and as such knows lots about the law and stuff.  NB: OSP is defunct, so Lilith's post is gone...

Me? I’m just your run-of-the-mill, patriotic American. Actually, I’m making that up. I am a patriotic American, but somehow I find having a tattered plastic flag flapping from my vehicle to be the dumbest (and illegalest) way to prove my patriotism, so I guess I’m a bit less run-of-the-mill than those folks in the flag-bedecked SUVs that I pass on the interstate.

I’m probably also less run-of-the-mill because I think making our school kids say the Pledge isn’t the best way to teach patriotism. Now don’t get me wrong: I dig our flag. A lot. I love singing the national anthem before ballgames and all that.

The Pledge just rubs me the wrong way, is all. And not merely because I find it a little disturbing that we teach kids to pledge allegiance to a symbolic piece of cloth instead of, say…the Constitution that enshrines our national ideals. But whatever.

My distaste for those 30 odd words might also have something to do with the fact that I was pretty much forced to say the Pledge in school. I know, I know…if that’s the biggest ordeal I had to suffer through as a school kid* then I really have no complaint. In fact that’s in line what Mrs. B, my 7th grade math teacher, said to our class one cold January morning in 1982.

So there we are, having just returned from Christmas break, and the usual morning claptrap is coming over the PA system. Then it’s time for the flag. It’s early in the morning, we’re tired pre-teens and teenagers, lamenting that two weeks vacation is not enough time for any reasonable pre-teen or teenager to truly recover from the torment of first semester, and now we’ve got to stand up and “pledge allegiance…to the flag…over in the left corner of our math room.” Our teacher took umbrage at the grumbling.

Let me remind you that our scene takes place when the Cold War was still an excuse to act insane—to be more specific, it was roughly a month after martial law was declared in Poland. So Mrs. B dusts off her skills in rhetoric and lectures us thus: “You should be grateful that you live in a country that’s so free. My god, the Poles don’t even have free speech. So stop whining about having to say the Pledge once a week.”

The nascent irony detector in my head went off, but I dared not give voice to the obvious question, “if we have free speech, why are we forced to say the Pledge at all?” No, dear readers, for once in my life I left well enough alone and avoided being snarky.

I wasn’t forced at gunpoint to pledge my allegiance, but I certainly wasn’t going to go up against a person who wielded the weapons of detention and 500-word essays (oh, but how delicious it is to write a 500-word piece now about patriotic Mrs. B). This left a bad taste in my mouth and made me realize that maybe there was some inherent contradiction in what we were doing. A rebel was born in pre-algebra class.

Well, a rebel without a clue perhaps. I dutifully said the Pledge all through middle and high school out of fear of adding yet another “different” label to my nerdy persona, but I sure didn’t like it. The only minor act of rebellion I engaged in was to omit “under God” as I began to explore Buddhism and other religions (damn my liberal Quaker parents for letting me develop a broad worldview).

Pop quiz: how did making me say the Pledge turn me into a better citizen? Answer: it didn’t. Sorry for the trick question, but I needed to make sure you were paying attention.

If democracy is so great, to paraphrase Dick Gregory, then why do we have to force it down kids’ throats? I mean, I know school is the perfect place for indoctrination, but isn’t this whole Pledge scheme like the kind of crap we loathe about dictatorships?

Boiling our principles down to a memorized slogan is what evildoers do. So let’s bag the Pledge in our schools. It represents patriotism by rote, frees kids from the burden of actually thinking about our democratic ideals, and just pisses off atheists and sleepy pre-teens and teenagers. I say give ‘em another 10 seconds to zone out at their desks in the morning. Over the years, that adds up to hours—time I certainly wish I had back, and that’s not even counting getting yelled at by Mrs. B.

Well, enough of this trip down nostalgia lane. Tune in next month when I tell you all about the filmstrips assistant football coach Mr. H used to teach us about our responsibility as citizens in high school civics class. You know, it's a wonder any Americans vote...


* It wasn’t.  The biggest ordeal was being locked in lockers, but that’s another story.

April 14, 2007 | Permalink


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