Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Back in 1980, when I was a senior in high school, there was a resurgence in a desire to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. The courts had decided that it could not be mandatory, but it was legal if participation was voluntary. So, every morning they would recite the pledge over the PA system, and students were free to participate or not during the homeroom assembly time.
One of the teachers told me that participation rates really depended on year. In Freshmen homerooms, there was almost no participation at all, but participation increased year by year until the senior homerooms where almost everybody participated. It was my senior year, and sure enough, everybody in the homeroom, save one student, stood and recited the pledge.
This one student was a foreign exchange student from Sweden. She sat, quietly and respectfully, as the rest of the class stood for the pledge. One day, I overheard a couple of my classmates complaining about her and how disrespectful it is that she doesn’t participate. I was ungodly unpopular in high school (as my regular readers probably realize by now), and very bashful, but somehow, I felt the burning need to step in on this conversation. I pointed out that she doesn’t participate because she’s not American. “It’s still rude,” they insisted. In an uncommon act of courage, or stupidity, I asked if they really understood what they were saying when they recited the pledge.
The Pledge is just that, a pledge. It starts “I pledge”, meaning “I solemnly promise”. It’s a form of personal guarantee. It continues, “to the flag of the United States of America”. Well, pledging to a piece of clothe seems silly, but this is basically acknowledging that during the pledge, we are to face the flag as a symbol of the nation, or in the direction of the nearest flag if one is not visible. The next line gets to the heart of the matter, “and to the republic for which it stands.” It’s not a pledge to a flag, but to the Republic of the United States of America. By definition, a “republic” is a state wherein the supreme authority lies with the people through their elected officials. Although of late the rights of the people, including their rights to vote through obvious attempts to limit voting rights, this nation was founded on the ideal of giving power to the people. It ends with “one nation, [under God], with liberty and justice for all.” I put “under God” in square brackets because it was not part of the original pledge. No mention of God was originally in the pledge because of the founding principle of separation of church and state for the fledgling nation. The phrase was added in 1954 in response to the fear of the communist threat, a fear fueled in a large part by the McCarthyism movement of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s which was the American equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. This final line declares our unity as a nation that is intended to provide liberty, or the freedom to be who you are and, yes, participate in government through voting, and justice, even if you’re a minority, female, or who you love, for all. For all. Wouldn’t that be beautiful if it were true?
We’re taught to stand for the pledge (or the national anthem which stole the tune of a song of drinking and sex which is certainly something that I could get behind), but it becomes a habit rather than having the solemn meaning that it should. These students complaining about our foreign exchange student fail to realize that, had she stood for the pledge, that would have been an act of disrespect for our flag and our nation. She was doing the right thing; because she was not an American, to pledge her allegiance would have been done without meaning, and as disrespectful as if we, as Americans, were to participate in standing for the Swedish National Anthem. In fact, in this exchange, it was the students complaining about her who were disrespecting the nation. Clearly, they did not understand what the pledge actually is, and certainly didn’t honor the weight of the pledge and the words they were saying. Had they a better understanding, they would have appreciated her sitting it out.
I hate to say it, though, the boys in my high school were not exactly bright. We’re talking about a school where three of our football players tried to get high by smoking oregano, after all. Apparently, somebody had purchased a jar of the spice, soaked off the label and sold it to the players claiming it to be marijuana. So, in a car on school property no less (let’s be honest, they though oregano was marijuana, so of course they weren’t bright enough to drive someplace more private) they rolled it up and blazed it. I’m sure they thought it was working, though, since they probably started craving pizza.