The Free Person's Pledge

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October 31, 2007

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.

Pledging allegiance to the flag always bothered me, as far back as grade school. There's the obvious paranoia stuff, about young people being compelled by law to attend and by routine to pledge to institution-established symbols; that picture above is opportunistic and coincidental, but perfect. But let's pretend we're in need of a daily collective pledge. Can't we come up with a better one?

Let's edit it down a little bit, for starters. The Constitution is what it is, but you'd like to hope that state liturgy would at least conform to it, if only so we know what we're in for. I mean, something about children being asked by the government to declare their allegiance to a state personally ruled by God sounds possibly a smidge borderline regarding the issue of "respecting an establishment of religion," but, I don't know, it's iffy. Maybe we ought to think about figuring out if maybe that phrase was pushing it a little bit. Kind of a gray area when the government promises to never infringe on the individual's religious freedom and then asks youth to swear lifelong loyalty to God's country, but we'll keep pondering it.

So there's two words any idiot could snap off without blinking. Besides, it was initially added, as a tribute to Pharaoh Lincoln's imperialism, by international meddler Dwight Eisenhower, who also once used war prisoners as slave labor. What's next?

The pledge was adopted in 1892. The contemporary state of the union: the War of Southern Rebellion had recently ended, federal dominion over segregation was blossoming, the addition of new dependent territory in the Caribbean and South Pacific was in the works, land west of Canada was becoming a state, and government massacres of Native Americans were wrapping up, but the union was rock solid otherwise. Sounds like herding cats across a river, hence this "indivisible" wishful thinking. First, is it a good idea to create symbols for a multi-centennial nation based on the specific concerns of a single period? Should we update it with 9/11 Rudytalk? Secondly, even if the impossibility of secession were true, how is that a great thing? What is more terrifying than being born into an arranged association that can never be dissolved? Indivisible's out, if not because it's a lie, then solely because it's fucking depressing. Three words gone.

'One nation." Yep. This statement actually isn't obvious enough, and could use more words. Where is this nation? Which continent, hemisphere, and planet? Are you sure it shouldn't be, "one nation, and not two, but more than zero, without any remainders, and it's not rounded down, it's just one?" This one is really stupid. Five.

And the part where it clarifies which flag it is, 'of the United States of America ,' is the same. When the thing was first written, it was just 'my flag,' but the phrase evolved. 'My flag' wouldn't be all that offensive. If you like flags.

Here's where we get down to business. "And to the Republic, for which it stands." The thing about symbols is they only mean what people understand them to mean. No human can declare that a rose stands for love and impose that as a law of nature forever; over time, many humans in cultures such as ours have just come to agree that roses are a good symbol for love, due to the flower's beauty, fragility, and hidden danger. I'm sure there's some part of the world where roses stand for something extremely unlovely. The swastika was literally an almost eerily worldwide and ancient symbol of eternal peace, until somebody got a little carried away. So for a state to declare for its people what its symbol stands for is pissing in the wind, at best. This is not just because a corporation such as a nation can easily get a symbol wrong, as the "two snakes coiling a winged rod" logo that medical organizations use attests to. The two snakes, assumed to reference Moses' healing staff, actually belonged to Hermes, PRE -biblical god of commerce and theft and not medicine at all. If commerce/theft is an accurate description of modern medicine, well, fine, but clearly the intent was missed. And even if they get it right for a time, the symbol's meaning will eventually change, which makes pledging to one defined by someone else tricky. And not just because this symbol's meaning is set in stone by that which aims to be symbolized, in a bizarre act of enforced meta-mythology.

Consider the whole point of a symbol. It's an encapsulation, of an idea, that exists as both itself AND that idea. If the symbol itself has no value of its own other than to signify its object, it's not a symbol, it's just a sign. What's left of the pledge after we cut out the kindling is "I pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, with liberty and justice for all." Here, Flag = Republic. I see the point of a national emblem, but why should it hold any value if it stands for nothing beyond the government of that country? Why not just a white sheet with the country's name on it? Obviously, the American flag means more things to more people in the world than only a very few symbols in history, but we're talking about the pledge to it, not the flag itself. According to the pledge itself, which literally contains more anti-secession and theocratic daydreaming than praise of the actual flag, the symbol has nothing to stand for besides a bureaucracy.

The quickest way to solve this redundancy is to eliminate the less effective word. Flag or Republic? Which one goes? I, for one, would rather not pledge everlasting fealty to a government, let alone one that, I mean, good God, where do you start? So, strangely, I will not promise my undying loyalty to any government composed of humans; the worst people of all time were all, in fact, humans in charge of government. So, no Republic.

Now we've got it down to (1) the flag, and (2) liberty and justice for all, which sounds like what the flag is intended to symbolize, so it at least works, but it's wordy.

We all like to pledge to things. People get tattoos, marry each other, name their dogs after dead relatives, write their names on walls in foreign cities they'll only see once, trade gifts during rituals, and so on. Whether due primarily to fears of mortality, insecurity about the individual's small place in the world, or what have you, we like to attach ourselves to things that will either outlast us or carry part of us beyond ourselves, like a spider fixing its web to as many sturdy points as possible, in hopes it holds. It's about ownership; people want to own parts of and be owned by parts of things around them, making tiny, often unspoken, contracts with certain chosen others. That impulsive need to establish durable connections has often manifested in, among other things, patriotism, or the placing of a nation's ideals above the individual's, which gives the individual something to belong to and something to be proud of. States fear abandonment too, and foster patriotism any way they can, by doing things like adopting standard pledges so people don't even have to come up with their own.

But a marriage only works if both sides understand that if they don't live up to expectations, the other party can dissolve the union. Every contract has stipulations; we don't just enter arrangements because we're desperate to. I didn't just marry Emily, I married her love and creativity and beauty and bizarre shoes and absurd humor and pretty singing. I don't love America because of the flag; I tolerate it because of the glimmers of liberty and justice. If, by some cause, this country or any other somehow achieved rampant liberty and justice, pledging allegiance to that country would still be an unnecessary assumption of permanence. Liberty and justice are the ideal objects of glory, and governments are at best just means to those ends, no matter how many symbols they throw at us. There is much justice in America , but hardly justice for all, and all the baby eagles nesting in dollar bills on Lady Liberty's torch won't ever change that.

"I pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all." What better resolution to daily swear?

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Jason Kirk blogs at Mutiny Baby and is working on his debut collection of short fiction.