I pledge allegiance to dogma

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

It's comforting to see one of America's most enduring and inconsequential public policy issues back in the news. Like flag burning and the Ten Commandments and kill-the-cops/parents/them music, the Pledge of Allegiance delivers indignation decade after decade.

This week it went back before the U.S. Supreme Court for another non-ruling. The court decided that "under God" can stay in the schoolchildren's pledge at least for now because the parent who sued has no standing to sue, ensuring we can keep coming back to this public and legal debate in years to come, whenever we need something to stoke our egos. It arises whenever atheists, evangelical Christians, communists and xenophobes forget that they were born to dismiss and revile each other. Somebody wrote the Pledge of Allegiance just to make sure we continually question whether freedom of speech means anyone else can talk. Or think.

It's scarcely worth touching the "under God" part of this debate. For decades deviants have gotten away with humming over that part in silent protest. It's not fair to force those with other religious ideas to say something, or to feel ostracized for not saying something, but this is how some people get their kicks. It is not for us to say how people should get their kicks, an integral part of free expression. No, my issue with "under God" is that it was added to the pledge, then in its infancy, during the McCarthy era. Every day our children say a prayer to paranoia and persecution.

In my grade school years, our bus driver displayed a "Question Authority" sticker at the front of the cab. Never mind that he was the strictest man I knew in all my schooling, and that I'd never think to cross him. But every morning I'd look at that sticker and wonder what it meant. Then I'd step into school and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn't want to. I didn't not want to. I didn't care. I just said it because it was asked of me. I can only assume that someone thought it would make me a good American, that it would wash away all my pre-pubescent anarchist plots. It appears to be working. So far, no speeding tickets.

But I was a middle child, and as school progressed, so did my sense of mischief. I stopped pledging, but sang Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" with gusto whenever I was asked. The same people who wanted us to be good Americans also must have wanted us to be good little socialists. I don't think I could have defined irony, but I knew it when I tasted it, and it tasted good. Why? Because I'm communist? No. Never got there. But it's for the same reason that it's great fun to watch good old boys at the ballpark belting out YMCA, an unabashedly gay song.

Speaking of ballparks, they're a good place for compulsory patriotism. With the exception of the old domes, which used simulated flags on a light board, it feels good to stand up with everyone else - especially if you're rooting for the home team - and respect the flag as the national pastime gets underway. If you want to be subversive and keep your hat on, it's only fair that you should have to deal with the rowdies. Everyone paid to get in.

School is something else. While it's clear that socialization is one of the goals of education, thinking is a bigger one. And somewhere in those school years independent thought becomes the biggest goal. Yet every day students are asked to say what they learned by rote when they were 5.

Under God. Indivisible. For all. Who cares? The Pledge of Allegiance has never changed the way anyone thought about anything. Outside of a courtroom, it's rarely made anyone think at all.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.

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