September 2003

Pledging ‘something’ to the flag

By David Grant Long

“I pledge something to the flag of the United States of America, and to the something for which it stands,” is how I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the one-room schoolhouse I attended many years ago. “One nation, under God, something, with something and something for all.”

Or at least that’s how my second-grade mind, ignorant of concepts like “allegiance,” “republic,” and “indivisible,” interpreted this curious mantra we chanted each morning in unison with our one-eyed teacher.

The Pledge meant nothing to me other than being what we did before our music period, which could last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on Mr. Norris’s mood. So it was like an exercise to warm up the old vocal chords for singing loud, off-key verses of “Billy Boy” (the teacher’s first name was Billy), “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and other rousing selections from a red-, white- and blue-covered songbook entitled “America Sings!”

It’s been, therefore, with some amusement I’ve read recent news stories about Colorado school kids being required by law (or not) to recite the Pledge each morning, presumably to instill in them that nebulous substance “patriotism,” which Samuel Johnson correctly observed is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Which gets me nicely around to speaking of scoundrels: It seems our pathetic legislators, terribly eager to show how terribly patriotic they are in the wake of the 9-11 attacks and the subsequent waging of the unending War on Terrorism, passed a law earlier this year mandating that all the state’s public-school teachers make their charges parrot them in a daily recitation of the pledge. Never mind that the Supreme Court decided in 1943 that “compelled speech” is unconstitutional. (Our own representative, Mark Larson, initially spoke against this foolishness, but ultimately voted for an amended version.)

Under the law, currently placed on hold by a federal judge until the General Assembly tries to correct its unconstitutionality next year, Colorado kids must slavishly drone their loyalty to Old Glory each morning to kick off their bitter dose of public education, unless their parents give them permission not to because such a blanket promise of fealty goes against their religion or politics.

In those cases, the exempted kids get to stand in silence (and stand out like major zits) while the students who are not Communists, atheistic bastards or Muslim terrorists show them what being “good Americans” is all about.

Forced speech, it’s called by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing teachers and students who challenged the law.

“Are they going to make kids say the pledge unless they get a note from their parents?” a Denver Post story quoted Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein asking. (In other words, are the students going to be taught that they themselves don’t have the freedom not to speak?)

Although most parents interviewed had no problem with their kids being turned into automatons, the Post reporter managed to dredge up a couple who didn’t like this brand of “patriotism” being imprinted on their offspring.

“Part of living in the United States is that you are not forced to say something that is not part of your beliefs,” said one mother.

“They‘re being taught to worship the flag, and I don’t think that blind worship of anything is good whether it’s a flag, the cross or a swastika,” said another.

Still, as contemptible and silly as the law is, I doubt permanent harm will result should it eventually survive the legal morass it has already created.

Because just like the young me, some of the students interviewed obviously had no idea what they were saying anyway. One thought “indivisible” meant “wisdom,” while another thought it meant “people aren’t visible.” Just like me, in their minds they are actually saying, “I pledge something... to something... with something... for all.”

But don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with those of us who can actually grasp its meaning declaring allegiance to our national symbol. I do it myself twice a month.
Of course, my idea of loyalty to country doesn’t involve unqualified support of draft-dodging politicians and their self-serving agendas, such as engaging in foreign adventures to protect the vested interests of their rich buddies. (Let’s see, Bush and Cheney are oilmen, and we just sacrificed a lot of young lives and billions of tax dollars to take over some Iraqi oil fields... hmmm...)

My pledge means working to get rid of such corrupt, duplicitous leaders and replace them with folks who actually adhere to the principles of democracy: equality, fairness, freedom — “liberty and justice for all.”

Now that we’ve got that straight, anyone care to join me for a lively rendition of “Oh, Susannah”?