The Pledge of Allegiance is creepy.
It is, explicitly, a loyalty oath, so that right there is one big check in the creepy column. But it’s worse than that, because this isn’t just a one-time loyalty oath sworn by new citizens at the moment their citizenship begins. It’s something we are invited and expected to recite regularly, daily, almost constantly. The implication is that each of us is perpetually under suspicion of dis-loyalty. The routine recitation of this Pledge of Allegiance suggests that our loyalty must be constantly re-affirmed and re-legitimated.
Think of wedding vows. They can be quite lovely. But now picture a husband who requires his wife to stand up and recite them every day. That’s not lovely at all, that’s just creepy.
Creepiest of all, I think, is that those most frequently asked and/or required to recite this loyalty oath are children. We’re so accustomed to this practice that we tend not to notice how deeply weird that is, or how unusual such a ritual is for a free people. Historian Richard Ellis has noted that “democracies generally do not require their children to pledge allegiance to the nation on a daily or even regular basis.”
Or, in other words, free people generally act like free people, rather than routinely performing the kind of ritual oaths of loyalty required and expected of unfree people.
That quote from Ellis’ 2005 book To the Flag comes from Jack David Eller’s fine essay for Boston Review, “Why Do We Pledge Allegiance?” Eller never uses the term “creepy,” but his long look at the history and function of the Pledge reaffirms its distinctive creepiness.
This creepiness does not arise from the text of the Pledge itself so much as from the way it has usually been used. That text is pretty terrific: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
That’s stirring stuff. “Liberty and justice for all”? Sign me up.
That affirmation of American ideals was intended to help enshrine and nurture a sense of American identity. So far, so good. But in practice, this hasn’t served as a positive affirmation, but rather as a defensive gesture. The national identity the Pledge affirms tends to be bounded, rather than centered. It has been used to ascribe American-ness by clarifying who’s out as a way of establishing who’s in.
It might be better, perhaps, if the Pledge took a cue from the creeds recited in many Christian churches and used the first-person plural “We” rather than the singular “I.” I think maybe that’s part of why the creeds function as centering affirmations of identity rather than as boundary-drawing personal defenses of personal legitimacy.
But for all of the creepiness inherent in any ritual loyalty oath, the Pledge does get right something that a great deal of American culture gets very, very wrong in 2018. It specifies what the flag stands for. We are asked/expected/required to pledge our allegiance to the flag as a symbol of “the republic for which it stands.” That is what we are saluting and honoring and swearing our loyalty to: the republic.
That’s important because it corrects and rebukes an increasingly popular misconception and misrepresentation that is even creepier than ritually requiring children to perform a loyalty oath. It rejects the lie that the pledge of allegiance, or the national anthem, or the flag itself stands for the military. We’re not supposed to “stand to honor the troops” or to salute the flag as a tribute to “our brave men and women in uniform.” That’s not what the flag stands for. It doesn’t represent the military or “the troops” or veterans. It stands for the republic.
We also may honor and thank those troops and service members and veterans because they serve or have served “the republic for which it stands.” But we do not pledge our allegiance to the military instead of to the republic, nor to the military as a surrogate for the republic. And loyalty to the republic means we cannot salute any military that would wish us to do so.
The increasing trend of militarizing patriotism is not compatible with allegiance to the republic. It is not compatible with democracy. It is not healthy or wise if we wish to remain a republic and a democracy. It is not something we should encourage if we wish to remain free.
We’ve arrived at a point where many Americans actually get angry at talk of “liberty and justice for all,” pretending that such talk is somehow a sign of disrespect for “the troops” or for veterans or for any of the other military symbols they imagine the flag represents. And if that is all that they will allow the flag to represent, then that is all that they will allow the flag to protect.
Given a choice between the military and “liberty and justice for all,” these Americans will side with the military every time. The military has become, for them, both the center and the boundary of legitimate American-ness.
This is incredibly dangerous. And it’s way beyond creepy.