Saturday, September 16, 2017
September 16-17, 2017: The Worst and Best of Allegiance
[September 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied this complex shared text, starting with a repeat of one of my oldest posts and then moving into four new ones. Leading up to this weekend post on the very salient question of the worst and best versions of allegiance!]
On what allegiance too often means, and what it might instead.
As I write this post in early September, a Cleveland police officers union has announced that its members will not hold a flag during the festivities before the first Cleveland Browns regular reason football game of the season. The union is angry that a number of Browns players have been kneeling during the national anthem before the team’s preseason games, and has pledged not to participate in the pregame ceremony as long as the players continue their silent protests. (It might be relevant to know that this is the same union that since May of this year has fought for the continued, consequence-free employment of the two police officers who shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice in November 2014.) While this action is more specifically linked to the argument that the kneeling players are “disrespecting” or even “attacking” law enforcement, is certainly also echoes other statements (many made in recent weeks by former NFL players and commentators, and of course many more made over the last year since Colin Kaepernick began his protests) that the protests are also “disrespectful” or even “unpatriotic” toward the flag or the United States.
That’s what “allegiance” is often taken to mean, of course. A kind of loyalty that is dutiful and obedient, that follows the rules of what to do during an anthem, that indeed treats those social mores as nearly as sacrosanct as the rules about proper handling of the flag itself. Such obedient allegiance to a nation not only doesn’t require independent thinking or action from its citizens, it actively discourages them, at least when it comes to the shared spaces and occasions in which we demonstrate our allegiance. The Kaepernick situation has laid bare the truths at the heart of such narratives of allegiance as plainly as could be: this is a young man who has exercised his rights of free speech, peaceable assembly, and protest as calmly and respectfully as I can imagine, and yet he has been treated and responded to by a significant portion of his fellow Americans (and apparently the entirety of his league’s powers-that-be) as if he is some sort of domestic terrorist or the like. When it comes to obedient allegiance, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker as he becomes Darth Vader, if you’re not with us, then you’re our enemy.
Yet as I’ve tried to argue throughout this week’s posts, that’s not the only way to think about allegiance, nor the Pledge to it. My most recent book made the case for the concept of critical patriotism, and I would say that if we are to take such a concept seriously, it would have to entail spaces and ways in which we could exercise that form of patriotism communally. What precisely would that more critical form of allegiance entail? Perhaps something as simple as a moment of silence at the end of the Pledge or anthem, in which we’re asked to think about something we would like to improve or strengthen in our national society or community, and then to share our answer with a neighbor. That’s simply a symbolic gesture, of course, but that’s all that these pledges and anthems are, symbolic representations of the national community and identity to which we are dedicated. Isn’t it time we strove together to embody a more thoughtful and engaged version of both allegiance and America?
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on these questions or the Pledge you’d share?