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Promises, Promises

Renovating the Pledge of Allegiance


Published June 29, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

This Independence Day weekend, our little world will be draped in flags, symbols of American patriotism, freedom and things it will soon be illegal to burn. Now, I love parades and fireworks as much as the next citizen, but all that Old Glory-waving reminds me of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Pledge of Allegiance is screwed up. Deeply flawed. I've been wanting to rewrite it for a long time. In case you haven't recited the POA since elementary school, let's look at it again:

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.

What enervating, dopey doggerel! It's an amateurish poem and a lousy promise. What if marriage vows follow the same logic?

I promise to marry

The ring on your finger

Which is attached to your hand

Which is at the end of your arm

Which somewhere along the line

Becomes you, who I love.

The POA's best part is at the end, but by the time we get to it, we're already thinking about lunch.

Who wrote this sawdust, anyway? I've always suspected either some Jeffersonian wannabe or a committee of reluctant, right-wing revolutionaries who demanded some sort of mind-numbing oath of unquestioning loyalty. But no. Not even close. It turns out -- and this is going to bunch the undies of oath-loving, under-God conservatives -- the Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, who was a Socialist! Well, a Baptist minister Christian Socialist, but one who was interested, according to his biographer, John W. Baer, in "a planned economy with political, social and economic equality for all."

Bellamy wrote the POA during his tenure as a committee chairman for the National Education Association. As it happens, he really wanted to include the word "equality" in the Pledge as well, but he knew that the rest of the committee was opposed to equality for women and "Negroes."

As you may know, Bellamy didn't include the phrase "under God" in the original POA. That was added in 1954 following a Supreme Deity Inclusion Campaign undertaken by the Knights of Columbus. It's a change Bellamy's granddaughter says he would have resented. Lest you doubt this, Baer notes that Bellamy left his Boston church under considerable duress in 1891, thanks to his Socialist sermons, and later stopped attending his Florida church because of the rampant racial bigotry he saw there.

Bellamy's lefty leanings aside, 112 years later the POA has all the pizzazz of a rainy day at a slug farm. I mean, for starters, I pledge allegiance to the flag? It's a flag, a symbol, and a pretty abstract one at that. Now, I get that some people are into symbols: crosses and stars and polo ponies. But that flag bears about as much relation to the actual United States as a digital photograph of the sun has to the actual ball of hydrogen in the sky.

Everyone probably knows the flag's stars represent the states, but what about the stripes and colors? I had no clue. A quick trip to the Betsy Ross home page at www.ushis, and I discovered The Awful Truth: "There is no official designation or meaning for the colors of the flag." The only person to take a whack at it was George Washington. In a moment of what could only have been hemp-inspired grandiloquence, the dude with the wooden teeth declared the stars came from the sky, the red "from British colors" -- whatever that means -- and the white stripes symbolized seceding from England.

Right. Back to the Pledge.

And to the republic ... Now, that just sounds too much like "Republican," and we're all way too het up over the current political divide to go anywhere near that one. Nevertheless, let's finish the sentence: ... for which it stands. Now we're getting somewhere. We're about to describe our country, i.e., the thing to which we're pledging our allegiance. Except, who knows what pledging allegiance actually means? It's too vague.

Moving right along: One nation. Duh. Got that.

Under God. This is problematic for a whole lot of reasons, but I think I'll hang my hat on the separation of church and state, as put forth in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and leave it at that.

Indivisible. This is clearly theoretical. I mean, around which issue are we truly all united?

With liberty and justice for all. Finally, the good part. But like I said, by now we're glazed over.

This baby definitely needs an Extreme Makeover. So, let's start by asking the question: What is the point and purpose of the Pledge in the first place? What is it used for -- other than to start school children on their day with a nice group drone? I have no idea. I went to a little hippie high school in Oregon and never had to take a civics class, much less chant the POA. But I think it has something to do with re-affirming our commitment to citizenship, civic responsibility and ideals such as liberty and justice (and equality), upon which this country was founded. Which is nice.

But my real concern over the Pledge springs from the slippery slope down which it could easily slide. There has been too much corralling of "what it means to be an American" by red-blooded poseurs threatened by anyone who doesn't follow their authoritarian rule-set and ossified beliefs. I fear the POA getting turned into a narrowly defined metric of Homeland Loyalty, and that certain powers will start to strenuously demand unquestioning support.

Honestly, I don't think national allegiance is a bad thing -- it just needs to be about loyalty to the country, not necessarily the government. The Declaration of Independence states that governments get "their just powers from the consent of the governed." Which means none of us should be required to swear a blind pledge of faithfulness and obedience if we don't consent to, for example, a misbegotten, unjustified, militaristic, imperialist rampage.

The POA is good in that it requires us to give some thought to the terms of our civic responsibility, but it was never intended to make individuals abrogate their forebrains. Resistance is not futile -- in fact, when things are going astray, it's required -- and the POA should reflect that.

OK, let's get to the rewrite. First, the title. I'd like to trade "pledge" for "promise." We all know what "promise" means, and what it feels like when one gets broken. No kid ever says, "Aw, Dad! Why can't we go to the zoo? You pledged!"

Allegiance is a tricky word. Technically, it has to do with fidelity and loyalty and, in some cases, obedience. But that becomes a problem when you run it up against the ideas of liberty and disagreeing with your government. So let's just call this thing The Promise. Or, how about The Ameri-can's Promise? That's what this is really about -- what we Americans promise, as citizens, to do on behalf of our country and each other.

Turns out it's hard to write. My first draft sounded like The Progressive's Manual for Utopian America:

As a citizen of the United States of America, I promise to nurture and cultivate the democracy by voting in every election and working to protect the integrity of the voters and the electoral process (and see what I can do about getting rid of the lobbyists);

I promise to remember that democracy and free-market capitalism do not automatically go hand in hand, and to work for viable alternatives to our current system, which has left millions of people without well-paying, meaningful jobs (and left about five people ridiculously wealthy);

I promise to uphold the ideal of Equality by working for equal pay for men and women and equal access to affordable health care (including stuff related to contraception and family planning, because that's nobody's damn business but our own);

I promise to uphold the ideal of Liberty by vigorously protecting the First Amendment and politely respecting the Second Amendment -- but not go overboard about it, since we all know the Founding Fathers didn't anticipate AK-47s and shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons;

I promise to uphold the ideal of Justice by transforming our revenge-based penal-industrial complex into a compassionate system founded on principles of prevention and rehabilitation ...

Etc. I could go on for pages regarding what I would love every American to promise. But that would be a) overtly partisan; b) supremely idealistic; and c) hard for school kids to recite. We want everyone to think about this, right? We want this to be something everyone in our "indivisible" land can relate to.

Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see." That's good. Let's try it from there:

As an American,

I promise not to be an asshole.

I promise not to be a greedy bastard.

I promise not to be a heartless, power-hungry egomaniac.

I promise not to be a shortsighted idiot.

I promise not to be a selfish prick.

Sigh. Let's go back to the basics. Bellamy was on to something, even if it came out like verbal Valium:

As an American Citizen,

I promise to uphold our ideals of

Liberty, Equality and Justice

By treating others as I would like to be treated;

By cultivating compassion for the people I don't understand;

By respecting the people with whom I disagree;

And by sticking up for the people worse off than I am.

I also promise to ask for forgiveness if I hurt someone, and offer forgiveness if I am hurt by others.

All this goes for everybody in the world, not just Americans.

I know it's going to be hard, but I promise to give it my best shot.

Good luck, everybody.