An Old Complaint Revisited

In 4th or 5th grade, I refused to say the pledge of allegiance. I stopped putting my hand on my heart and reciting the words, as we all did at the start of the day, turned toward the flag in the corner, speaking along with the voice of the principal on the loudspeaker. My teacher noticed, after a morning or two or three, and asked why I was not saying the pledge. “I don’t understand why I am supposed to,” I told her. I had gotten hold of a book that told the true story of Columbus day and some other of the uglier facts surrounding the “discovery” of a populated New World and the genocide that followed, and I was confused. All I really wanted was to have a conversation, for one of the adults in the school to tell me what is was we were pledging to support, what part of the story, and why so much of it had been hidden from us, at least in school.

Predictably enough, none of the adults wanted to have the conversation. I remember the teacher was sympathetic, but also sent me to talk the principal, who was not. My mother was supportive—she might well have given me the Columbus book—and because no one wanted to make much of a fuss, it was agreed that I didn’t need to say the pledge, but I would stand, so the other students didn’t feel uncomfortable. The adults were the ones being made uncomfortable, of course, but in any case, I still don’t say the pledge of allegiance, but I do stand, out of respect for people who think it important.

After 9/11, when I was in graduate school, we were asked to sign a loyalty oath, as part of our yearly passle of paperwork. I didn’t sign it, and turned it in blank, and no one ever said a thing to me about it. In part, this is due to my white male identity, but moreso it is because things like loyalty oaths and pledging allegiance to a flag and singing the national anthem and all the rest of the middling pageantry we are subjected to as citizens of the USA is meant to divert our attention from the conversations we should be having, to paper over the very real injustices we live through, and help perpetuate, every day. Instead of singing a song, a very crappily written song (with a stolen melody), why not use that civic space for a discussion of what it means to be citizens, to share joys and grievances and struggles and successes? Where is the public ritual devoted to real understanding of our fellow participants in Democracy? Instead, we pretend, we pledge to a symbol, a set of colors, we announce ourselves through bumper stickers and ribbon magnets, and avoid the real work of knowing one another.

These barriers to knowing one another exist by design. Irish poet Brendan Kennelly wrote, in the introduction to The Book of Judas, that he wondered

…if many people feel as I do—that in the society we have created is ti very difficult to give your full, sustained attention to anyone or anybody for long, that we are compelled to half-do a lot of things, to half-live our lives, half-dream our dreams, half-love our loves? We have made ourselves into half-people. Half-heartedness is a slow, banal killer. It is also, paradoxically, a creepy pathway toward “success,” especially if the half-heartedness is of the polished variety. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said that the real tragedy of modern man was the loss of heart. I don’t think so. I believe our tragedy is the viability of our half-heartedness, our insured, mortgaged, welfare voyage of non-discovery, the committed, corrosive involvement with forces, created by ourselves, that ensure lives will be half-lived. There’s a sad refusal here. A rejection of the unique, fragile gift.

Instead of indulging in a culture of constant distraction, perhaps we should take more time to know each other more deeply, to explore the stunningly rich fabric of human lives that swaddles us every day, from the shock of birth to the homecoming of death. There is so much to know, so much to do, to think, to feel, to love, to scorn, to laugh about, and too many of us live as though we have found a pier to cling to as the waves crash around us, waiting for our fingers to give out and the sea to take us away. It’s not easy to break free, to see that so many of the things we celebrate, and pledge to, and even love, are simply hollow, symbols meant to provide a semblance of meaning in the absence of the real thing, and the world that opens once a souls starts down that path can be truly scary, but each step is more sure than the last, until a time when we can sit and wonder at our fear, how it used to govern us, how we ever let it happen.