At the very beginning of every single school day, students are asked to pledge their allegiance to the flag of the United States, and acknowledge the existence of a god in doing so. My informal argument for why this is problematic follows.
We teach students, or at least we ought to, to take their words seriously. If they make a promise, they ought to keep it. A pledge of allegiance is a promise, it is essentially a promise to follow any command given by the federal government. When students pledge their allegiance, they are stating that whatever is asked of them by their government, they will obey.
Recall that this is a government constantly engaged in warfare under dubious pretenses at best. We have been fighting in the Middle East for decades, to what end? In what manner have we succeeded so far? What degree of success would be necessary to actually end this occupation? The answers, if they exist, are not forthcoming. Regardless, a pledge of obedience demands that should the government ask you to fly to Afghanistan and engage in warfare, you will do so.
This was an actual problem, not too long ago. The government asked young men to fly to Vietnam to engage in warfare. Why? Ho Chi Minh, who freed his country from French authoritarian rule, wanted to build a nation with cultural and economic ties to their neighbors. Bao Dai, the French educated emperor left in place after Japan withdrew at the end of WWII, wanted a country tied to, you guessed it, France (and the rest of the Western world). So the country split in half.
Eisenhower armed Bao Dai to the teeth, trained his soldiers, and gave him the support of the CIA as well. With that, Bao Dai violently oppressed sympathizers of Ho Chi Minh, arresting over 100,000 people, many of whom were tortured to death and executed. This was with the full approval of the United States of America. When the North began to fight back, the Vietnam war had begun. Veritable children from the United States were flown over to continue murdering anyone who dared to believe Vietnam ought to be more engaged with their neighbors than with Europe and the USA.
That’s not even the Cliff Notes, of course. It does serve to remind that this is not a hypothetical situation. These kids also had said the pledge of allegiance every day of their life for the last 14 years. When the call came, thousands volunteered, and many, many more accepted their draft notice, and flew to the other side of the world to kill and be killed. Those who refused were deemed cowardly traitors. Traitors to what? To the pledge they had taken.
As of 2009, by the way, there were roughly 77,000 veterans of the Vietnam War who were sleeping on the streets. That was the thanks they got.
I have actually pledged my allegiance before. I pledged allegiance to my wife. I only needed to do it once by the way, that’s how it works, I don’t have to remarry her every morning. I told her that I would stick by her side no matter what. I did that because I knew her really well, I knew what to expect, and with that knowledge I was comfortable making that promise.
In a democracy, the leadership changes regularly. The moral framework followed by the president, by the majority of the legislature, changes regularly. If the government was a person, they would be schizophrenic. Pledging loyalty to an ever changing body, one that will promote peace and community one year, and violence and hate the next, is just a bad idea. Given that you cannot predict the make-up and subsequent priorities of the government over time, to pledge to it loyalty is equivalent to walking up to any random person on the street and promising that you will do whatever they say no matter what.
Beyond what has happened recently, and what might happen in the future, the foundations of this country are fraught with moral failings as well. Slavery was practiced with these borders for 246 years. It has not practiced slavery for a paltry 155. 41 signers of the Declaration of Independence enslaved people. Spare us all the tired argument that it was just due to the times. The 16 people who did not, largely due to their belief that slavery was immoral and cruel, deserve more credit than that.
The people, formerly enslaved, who were freed were supposed to be given 40 acres. This was seen as fair, given that they had nothing but the clothes on their backs when they were freed. The land was taken from the treasonous Confederate soldiers who had recently been completely destroyed by Union forces. It was in place, it was going to happen, and then Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head. Andrew Johnson became president, reversed the order, and gave the land back to the Confederate soldiers who had tried to destroy the United States. Those who had been enslaved were given nothing.
The indigenous people of North America were massacred. There is no way around that. While enslaved human beings were being raped by presidents, and their babies being torn away from them to be sold, armies scoured the continent destroying nations that had existed for thousands of years. Children, mothers, the elders, all were murdered in cold blood. The survivors marched hundreds or thousands of miles away, to reservations they were not allowed to leave. Their children were taken by the government for generations, and beaten if they tried to speak their own language. This was an attempt at genocide, both literal and cultural.
Mexico used to be twice as large as it is now. It included Texas and California. The United States tried to buy that land, but Mexico refused. After a unsuccessful experiment in which the European settlers of Texas declared their independence, war was declared. 13,000 dead soldiers of the United States, more than died in either World War, and 25,000 dead Mexican soldiers later, Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, giving up half of its territory. They did nothing to provoke the United States, they simply wanted to keep their territory. It is exactly as if Canada decided they wanted all the states from Washington to Main, and waged war on the United States to claim them.
It is an unfortunate truth that there is almost no end to these kinds of travesties. In South and Central America. In Africa. In the Carribean and Polynesia. As a nation, the United States has so much blood on its hands that its hard to see anything else. As a military institution there have been two campaigns that seem at all justified, defeating the Confederacy and defeating the Nazis. The other 150 years of seemingly nonstop warfare all served only the ends of greed and bigotry.
You can argue that the United States has also done good things. Fine. As stated, they’ve got destroying the Confederacy and helping to defeat the Nazis to lean on. Most of the other amazing things that have come from the United States came in direct opposition to its government. The labor movement, suffrage, civil rights, all of it was due to the citizens of the United States rising against the federal government. The exact opposite of blindly pledging its allegiance.
It must be mentioned as well, that pressuring students to acknowledge a god at the beginning of a school day is a massive transgression against the first amendment. It should also be noted that schools often ask parents to provide a reason why their student doesn’t say the pledge of allegiance, as if freedom of speech isn’t a sufficient reason.
I once had a guest speaker in my classroom from Germany, she was there to present on nutrition, who had apparently not been in the classroom for the pledge before. As many of the students rose and recited the pledge she looked over at me with horror in her eyes. After her workshop the kids came to recess and she came to me, asking if they really did that every day. “It’s like something they would have made my grandparents do!” she cried.
The point she makes is chilling. It also highlights the irony of such a pledge, it is entirely un-American. This country has been deeply flawed from day one, and it remains so today. Progress, however, has been made, and is being made. It has been made, at almost every step of the way, including the steps being taken in the streets throughout the country today, in defiance of the federal government. In order to truly honor the rights we have achieved in this country we must permanently abandon the pledge of allegiance.
Happy 4th of July!