The early European settlers who first came to America were a diverse lot, but they had one thing in common. They shared a history in which feudal and monarchical authority had a way of encroaching upon those who failed to follow the protocols of deference to the signs and symbols of their time. As I explained in Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher, the perils for misinterpretation included the gallows, the rack, having molten lead and sulfur poured into one’s open wounds, and in some cases, being drawn, quartered, and pulled apart by horses.
Today, when Americans observe students of Wahhabism endlessly reciting from the Koran, some see it as brainwashing. But when American students daily recite the Pledge of Allegiance, these same people seldom see a connection to behavioral conditioning, even though both are a means of indoctrination. Symbols can indeed bring people together, but, as often as not, they are used as wands of authority. The power to fix meaning represents absolute power.
As I see it, the Pledge of Allegiance amounts to a pledge of obedience. While obedience is important to a civilized society, genuflecting in rote submission before symbols and icons is incompatible with a democracy that depends on knowledgeable citizens to hold their representatives accountable to high standards.
For fifty years after its debut, the Pledge of Allegiance was accompanied by the "Bellamy Salute" - right hand extended with palm upward. This was later changed to disassociate it with the symbolism of the Third Reich.
I would wager that most of the people who are adamant that students repeat the Pledge religiously are unfamiliar with its history. Few are aware that the current Pledge was not only penned by a socialist but also written as a means of protesting growing inequality in what was known as the robber baron era.
The Pledge was originally written in 1887, by Colonel George Balch, a Civil War veteran. Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister rewrote the Pledge in 1892. The original flag salute during the ritual was to hold one’s right hand upward, palm down, at an angle that shared similarities with the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute. This was changed in 1942 to putting one’s hand over one’s heart to disassociate it with the symbolism of the Third Reich.
Bellamy lectured about the socialistic nature of Christianity with speech titles like, Jesus the Socialist and The Socialism of the Bible. His version of the Pledge was simply ad copy, first published in a children’s magazine, to sell flags to public schools. In the early years, several versions of the Pledge were in play, and in 1954, the words “under God” were added to distance America from Communism.
The creation of the Pledge of Allegiance and its current role in society are deeply ironic. Bellamy had argued vociferously that men are not born free but are bound by the obligations of their ancestors and their culture. The selfish nature of capitalistic materialism, he said, must be defeated at all costs.
Because of the growing fear of immigrants, Conservative politicians have found the Pledge useful as a form of demonstrative ethnocentrism. It provides a way of overpowering alien loyalties. Those of us who oppose or differ with this view maintain that creating a flag fetish is antithetical to democracy, that forced recitation is in fact oppressive, and that opting out is untenable because of social pressure.
Unavoidably, I have left out a lot of the history of the Pledge, but I’ve included enough to make some points. First, the people who are most fervent about the need for reciting the Pledge, for the most part, have no idea about its history or why and how it came to be.
Moreover, those who insist that school children recite the Pledge daily often know very little about the civic obligations necessary to sustain a democracy, even though reciting the Pledge is something they are familiar with. It’s something they can do, and they think that by practicing this ritual, they are doing their part. Thus, they are thoroughly invested in the act as a demonstration and proof of one’s patriotism at a deeply emotional level. I know this to be true because I grew up in this culture.
In red states, especially, learning is viewed to a significant degree as behaving. Symbols and icons are treated as authoritative reminders that obedience is required and you are expected to get A’s.
Instead of having children recite the Pledge daily, I would rather see their time spent learning what kind of behavior is necessary to sustain a democratic republic. How about lessons in understanding the psychology of propaganda, the dangers of blind obedience, and the importance of transparency in government to foster a complete understanding of how government works, its structure, its history, and the kind of responsibility citizenship demands?
We are experiencing an alarming, fear-based rise in authoritarianism in this country. When a president-elect of the United States starts talking about putting people in prison for flag burning, look out. Flag waving, flag burning, and Pledge of Allegiance issues are going to be used as clubs and as distractions for the foreseeable future.
We need to be knowledgeable enough to deal articulately with dog-whistle bigotry, racism, fear mongering, contemptuous propaganda, and agenda-driven demagoguery.
Simply put: We need to be prepared to do what the founding fathers intended. Instead of bowing, saluting, and genuflecting with obedience at the appearance of symbols and icons, we need to speak truth to power and hold our elected officials accountable. At the same time, it would be helpful to remember that the Pledge of Allegiance was written to check power, not to reinforce it.
Charles D. Hayes