A Few Comments on the Flag and the Pledge

W.J. Astore

When I was young, I kept a pamphlet in my room: “How to Respect and Display Our Flag.”  It was from the U.S. Marine Corps, dated March 1968.  I still have that pamphlet; here’s a photo of it:

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Some of its guidance is now (it saddens me to say) obsolete.  Consider the following: “Do not use the flag as a portion of a costume or athletic uniform.  Do not embroider it upon cushions or handkerchiefs nor print it on paper napkins or boxes.”

Nowadays, flags are everywhere.  They are on football helmets and baseball caps.  They are on bathing suits (!) and shirts, jackets and tops.  I once bought an ice cream cone at a baseball game in a paper wrapper decorated by the American flag.

Fifty years ago, there was a sense our flag was special, meaning you didn’t put one everywhere and on everything.  All these representations of the flag that you see today, especially those flag lapel pins most often seen on sportscasters and politicians, strike me as opportunistic and self-celebratory rather than respectable tributes to Old Glory.

My flag handbook also says, “When carried, the flag should always be aloft and free–never flat or horizontal.”  I suppose they couldn’t imagine in 1968 flags so gigantic that they could only be carried flat or horizontal.

A book of more recent vintage (2001), “United We Stand,” celebrates efforts during World War II to bring the nation together by marking the Fourth of July in 1942 with images of the flag on magazines.  One of my favorites from that time showcased Veronica Lake:

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From this book, I was reminded of the original “Pledge of Allegiance”:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag

and the Republic for which it stands,

one nation indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

The phrase “under God” was only added in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism.

I favor the original pledge.  If it was good enough for the “Greatest Generation” who fought and won World War II, it should be good enough for these times.

I was also reminded of a song that I rarely hear nowadays: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan (played, of course, by Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as mentioned on the cover above).  Remember the opening stanza of that song?

You’re a grand old flag.

You’re a high-flying flag

and forever in Peace may you wave.

“Forever in peace may you wave” — how come we don’t hear that sentiment today?

Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

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My dad’s half dime

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector.  My dad, in contrast, saved old coins.  He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.

My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845.  To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.

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Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.”  This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war.  It made its first appearance in 1864.  (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)

As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.

But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.

With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.

Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded.  Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today.  But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism.  A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.

What united them was a belief in liberty.  In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all.  Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”

That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin.  It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.

Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.”  Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.

 

The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

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W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

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.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.