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Children’s Allegiance?

“I Pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

At five years old, I started kindergarten.  It was my first time at public school, and I had a lot to learn.  I had “centers” where I rotated between different activities, and I ate lunch in the cafeteria.  This was all innocuous enough, but the one thing that wasn’t was slid in at the same time. It was just another new schedule item, and my five-year-old-mind didn’t even know to question it.  Looking back, it was like religion. It was introducing little kids to concepts and vocabulary too advanced for the majority of kindergarteners. Little kids can’t possibly be all expected to understand what “allegiance” means, or all the traits that should characterize a republic.  They were just words to me, like Bible, Torah or Koran verses to other kids. I also wasn’t a dumb kid, given that I am now in all honors and AP classes and play two instruments, now in high school.

I’m also scared of the Pledge’s subversiveness.  I never would have acted on it, and still would never swear complete loyalty to any group or entity.  I have been promising this allegiance for the last eleven years of my life, have never once meant it, and never will mean it.  Some would argue that this is evidence that these words are empty, and are just part of an innocent tradition. But if the words really aren’t expected to mean anything, why has this mantra endured for, so far, 126 years?  The words were formulated 1892 to imbibe a sense of national unity through infusion of these ideas into the youngest Americans during the nativism within New Immigration during which the country’s demographics and politics underwent a seismic shift.  The year 1892 was also chosen to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World (Washington Post). However, since 1943 it has been considered unconstitutional to require the Pledge’s recitation. My main concern is just this: no one requires participation, but the routine is introduced to schoolchildren in a group setting at an age when it is known that critical thinking skills, reading comprehension, and willingness to act apart from the group are known not to be very high on average. 

I try to think critically about all new information now, but I am scared that until the matter was specifically brought to my attention, I never really questioned the statement.  My “awakening” as to the personal complexity of participating or not in the Pledge was twofold: from a discussion with a peer, and from the brief mention of the situation in the book A Flag Worth Dying For.  I was in a casual activity setting in advisory in tenth grade, and we were told to discuss any changes we’d like to see in our school district’s calendar.  My partner made it clear that he’d like days off to be changed to a closer alignment with Christian holidays. Although I live in the majority-white, majority-Christian New Hampshire, these comments struck me as insensitive.  I expressed a counter argument, saying that not everyone wanted to see a calendar further aligned to a religion not everyone participates in, when there is also supposed to be a separation of church and state, also applying to the federally- and state- funded public school system.  Christmas is only given as part of a school vacation because if it weren’t, there would be a high number of absences from school intervening with many students’ learning. Also, New Year’s Eve and Day, as well as Kwanzaa and sometimes Hanukkah fall during this period, further qualifying the last week of December and first day or two of January as valid times not to hold classes.  I continued in this vein for some time, until he interjected, “Oh, so you’re one of those people.  I bet you don’t even stand for the Pledge of Allegiance!”

My decade of Pledge conformity came crashing down around me in this heated debate with a kid I didn’t even know.  I made the decision right then and there to change my ways. I replied, embarrassed, “I don’t actually. But I should start.”  There began my one-person boycott. As the year went on, I again decided that it was kind of a silly thing to oppose so strongly, and began reciting the Pledge again.  But this didn’t last for long. As Summer 2018 began, my disenfranchisement with my country was only re-proven, time and time again. The migrant family separations, the fixations on the perpetual blunders of our president and his Twitter account, cover-ups and lies in government, increasing racism and police brutality, school shootings, and escalating wars of rhetoric with North Korea and China.  I’ve traveled to 12 countries and several US states at different points in my life. I’ve seen different ways of life and government, and see the merits and flaws in all. I would never want to live abroad, but I’ve seen how truly awful the US government is.

When I picked up A Flag Worth Dying For, the phrase describing the Pledge as part of a group of practices “almost unknown in other modern democracies” (Marshall 16) stuck in my mind.  After all I’ve seen wrong with the US, I realized this was just another part of it. I’ve seen a lot wrong, and arguably worse, in other countries, such as Colombian shantytowns and Moroccan oppression of women, but that doesn’t make it okay to introduce a widespread institution of declaring loyalty at school.  I never plan on joining the American Armed Forces, and will never seriously pledge any similar loyalty. However, since I do plan on spending the majority of my life in the US, the part addressing attention to the “republic for which it stands” can serve as an inspiration to help change any of the aforementioned problems within the US.

“Under God.”  I think this phrase is equally problematic as the disguised call to arms in the first section.  According to procon.org, the phrase was added during the Eisenhower administration, presumably to further the promote the US as divinely supported and benevolent, during the increasingly polarized and nationalistic Cold War period.  Supporters point out that the phrase in the Pledge only creates consistency with the term used in government documents and currency, and reflects the Christian-majority status of the country. I think that this injection of religion into an increasingly secular and non-Christian country is mildly subversive, but also relatively benign as far as introducing religion to small children goes.  I do not take enough issue with the phrase that I am inspired to change it, but I also don’t think I will recite the Pledge during my junior year.

I’m torn.  I want to support my country and help work in a likely scientific or literature-related field as an adult which will improve the country indirectly by spreading knowledge.  I would never want to sabotage any existing unity or devotion to improvement or continuation of any rights and non-harmful movements, but at the same time I don’t want to show blind support for the US.  I feel that by saying the Pledge, others will interpret my perspective as “Look at that white girl; she’s probably never experienced any real problems in the US, so she just says the Pledge because she thinks the US is great.”  But if I boycott it, I feel that others will see me as overly cynical and unappreciative. They might think along the lines of “Look at her, she lives in a country with so many freedoms and still isn’t happy. It doesn’t help anyone to sit there for thirty seconds a day.  If she really wanted change, there’s so much more she could do. Also, I have no way to know what part of the Pledge or country she has a problem with.” In the end, I probably won’t say the Pledge. I’m not trying to radically change anything. I’m just one voice, and however selfish, my main focus in high school is education, rather than trying to spearhead a movement to change the lives of a country of over 300 million people.  I just want to show myself and others that I don’t take the patriotic propaganda at face value, and that I took the time to think about the words more deeply. If others think I’m being disrespectful, so be it. Maybe they don’t see the words or what they represent as a problem. If others wonder why I’m sitting, they can ask and maybe realize my perspective is interesting. Above all, I want anyone who notices my actions to know that I neither hate the US with all my existence or am head-over-heels with my country along with its symbols and rituals.  

On a minor tangent, another problem I have with US patriotism is to refer to the country as “America.”  Although this is both a logical shortening of the longer and more formal name “United States of America” and a root of the only demonym in the English language to refer to a resident of the US, it presumes heightened US importance in the world.  I know that in the second half of the 20th century, and to some extent, until today, the US has been a major participant in the global economy, politics, and other aspects of international relations. The US was able to take advantage of its lack of physical decimation in World War II to manufacture and otherwise position itself as an economic and cultural powerhouse.  But today, many countries are developing a negative perception of the US as current policy has sometimes been increasingly hostile towards certain countries such as those where many migrants originate from and predominantly Muslim countries wrongly labelled as dangerous. However, we have also overstepped our bounds into situations that didn’t necessarily concern us countless times, and are known worldwide for having an inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of international awareness on the global scale.  Using the term “America” perpetuates this perception, as the term was originally used in reference to the entire landmass and nearby islands of what is today North and South America, named for the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci and given a feminine ending to fit the trend of using female pronouns to refer to pre-existing geopolitical entities (The Origin of Country Names). This name as part of my country’s name is often the chosen reference word, while ignoring the dozens of other American countries. I feel no need to evangelize my choice in reference method to others, but want to explain my sometimes-convoluted reference method to avoid the term in many cases.  Even in other languages, there is a better term. In Spanish, “estadounidense” refers to the US nationality, but no one can say “United States-ian” and be taken seriously in English.

In the end, there are so many arguments both for and against saying the Pledge with different ways of seeing the country.  So many factors can persuade an individual to support it or not. This issue bears similarity to the duality of the generic term “America,” known both as a nationalistic form of ignorance and as a straightforward and broadly understood method of reference. This issue is similar to consideration of the Pledge.  Supporters can come from the perspective of tradition or from a malicious sense of supremacy, while opponents can be seen as either globally conscious or nitpicking into an innocuous tradition. Either way, both issues are clearly complex. They are important, however, and it is important for all Americans to be aware of the connotation of such choices, and how they might need to amend or their behaviors to be more in line with their national beliefs.

 

Works Cited

Marshall, Tim. A Flag Worth Dying For: the Power and Politics of National Symbols. Scribner, 2018.

“The Origin of Country Names.” Catchword, 14 July 2016, catchwordbranding.com/catchthis/fun-stuff/the-origin-of-country-names/.

Petrella, Christopher.  “Perspective | The Ugly History of the Pledge of Allegiance – and Why It Matters.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Nov. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/11/03/the-ugly-history-of-the-pledge-of-allegiance-and-why-it-matters/.

“Under God in the Pledge – ProCon.org.” Should the Words “under God” Be in the US Pledge of Allegiance?, undergod.procon.org/.

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