My dad liked to save things, so today I came across an old pamphlet from 1940 or so that contained the Pledge of Allegiance as it was then. Here it is:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
It’s a good pledge, I think, though it’s wordy and focused on a piece of cloth. How about something like this instead?
I pledge allegiance to our republic, our unity, and our love of liberty and justice for all.
I think that captures the meaning of the Pledge, assuming we feel the need to have one.
You’ll note, of course, what’s missing: the idea our nation is “under God.” That sentiment was added only in the 1950s in response to McCarthyism and fears of communism. If you’re committed to God’s commands, especially His call to love thy neighbor, you really don’t need to brag about it in the Pledge. Of course, many Americans believe in gods, or no god at all, so an inclusive pledge of unity shouldn’t mention god at all.
My father’s generation endured the Great Depression and helped to win World War II, arguably the last war America truly won, without constantly pledging they were “under God.” We should follow their example.
Addendum: When I last wrote a column on the Pledge, a savvy reader made this comment: I remember from grade school when Under God was added. It was shortly after Under Your Desks.
He’ll tweet lies and conspiracy theories about Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old activist who was shoved to the ground and sent to the emergency room by Buffalo cops. He’ll shamelessly use both the Bible and the flag as props. He infamously teargassed peaceful protesters so he could pose with a Bible in Washington, D.C. Trump, of course, knows nothing about said Bible; when asked, he couldn’t name a single passage from it, nor did he seem to know the difference between the Old and New Testaments. No matter — Trump knows a useful prop when he sees one.
When the Bible fails to impress, it’s back to the flag again. Trump is reviving the whole kneeling dispute in the NFL, when Colin Kaepernick and other black players took a knee in protest against police brutality. Allegedly finding this “disrespectful,” Trump hugs Old Glory to his body while grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary.
For a refreshing dose of reality, I was watching George Carlin and he reminded me politicians have three favorite theatrical props: the Bible, the flag, and children. Trump is two for three; when will he start arguing that he should be reelected to save the children?
There’s a breathtaking shamelessness to Trump. It comes with his all-consuming ego and astonishing narcissism, but it’s more than that — Trump enjoys tapping into his shamelessness so as to inflame his base and further divide America.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party empowers him because they find him both intimidating and tractable. Trump intimidates because he can fire-up his cult-like base against any Republican with a single tweet; Trump is tractable because he largely does the bidding of corporate elites and financial powerbrokers. They may not like Trump’s egotism and vulgarity, but they sure do like all the money flowing upward to them.
This dynamic reminded me of a line from the Bob Seger song, “Night Moves“: I used her, she used me, but neither one cared/we were gettin’ our share. But even those who are getting their share should be wary of Trump: his utter shamelessness means he has very little to lose.
Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up. It seemed so incongruous. My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood. I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so. The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.
Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.” Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins. Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn. But are they not patronizing to the audience? W.J. Astore
I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.
But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself. I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity. Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.
So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:
One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival. Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.
But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).
Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.
Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Music is real in a way that nations are not.
Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.
Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.