Divided, We Fall


I don’t know about you, but for me, growing up in public schools the Pledge of Allegiance was part of the morning routine — part of the daily announcements. Every morning, one student would get to lead the rest of us in the Pledge. For a while, this seemed like an honor. After a while, I thought it just seemed silly. I don’t remember when I started feeling this way.

Not Quite Amber Waves of Grain

The first time I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance, I was in fifth grade. I’d read about a character in a book who didn’t say the Pledge. I don’t remember what book or why the character refused to say the Pledge, but whatever the reason, it resonated. I still stood. I still placed my palm over my heart. I just didn’t speak. I remember my teacher publicly questioning me (effectively guilting) me about not saying the Pledge. After that, I dutifully said the pledge, minus the “Under God” part.

Until seventh grade. Then I stopped saying the pledge again. And again, I still faced the flag and put my palm over my heart. This time, it was my classmates who questioned me. I don’t remember what I told them either, but it didn’t encourage me to say the Pledge. I wasn’t alone in not saying the Pledge. The Wiccan and the guy who’d get arrested when we were in 8th grade (and who would later join the military) also didn’t say the Pledge.

By high school, I often didn’t even put my hand over my heart, though I still stood as a sign of respect for the people who’d died for the country I didn’t see why I should pledge allegiance to well-sewn scraps, for a country I already suspected didn’t believe in me and for freedoms I didn’t believe existed. Liberty and justice for all — that’s what I had a problem with by high school. I watched the people around me recite the Pledge, while looking bored or why they checked out the person they were interested in, or while they tapped a foot to some rhythm only they could hear.

Then, there was September 11, 2001. Like everyone I knew, I watched the events unfold. I sat glued to televisions and later, to newspapers. I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to know what we, as a country, were going to do. And in the days that followed, even most of the people who, like me, had decided not to say the Pledge said it louder than before. I watched, silently horrified, that people who’d showed so little “patriotism” before suddenly wanted to demonstrate their love of country. I remained silent, and began wearing a white armband. I started talking politics to anyone who would listen — which wasn’t many people at all in my conservative southern high school. I didn’t understand why it took a disaster to bring people back into the fold of patriotism (American exceptionalism? groupthink?)– when, as I saw it, we needed change in the country. I saw us running scared, saw racism swell at my school particularly toward people of Middle Eastern dissent. I watched friends join the military and listened to discussions about “protecting” America, listened to people talk about how willing they were to give up civil liberties so they’d be safe. You probably remember these conversations. I wanted the conversation to shift, I wanted people to care that we were sending boys my age to die for oil. I wanted people to talk about we weren’t making ourselves safer and how shopping wasn’t the way to boost morale. I didn’t know how to help that happen.

Redwood Forests

Now, it seems easy. Now it seems like people are protesting and equal rights marching and fighting for people’s homes and lives and pushing back against Monsanto and Bank of America and nuclear power. Now it seems like there are too many options for how to resist. And it’s showing up on both sides of political lines — we can see this with the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy.

Great, right? More opportunities to support my cause, more opportunities to help change the country. But we’re not talking to each other anymore — especially across ideological lines. Instead, we opt into media we want to consume and ignore the other media. We post on Facebook that we don’t want to talk about politics, which we (for the most part) don’t seem to realize is a political statement. We try to pretend that by not talking about politics, we won’t be affected by it — and we’re safe in not having our beliefs challenged.

But by not talking to each other, we’re becoming ever more divided. In short, we’re acting more and more like young children — unable to relate to the feelings and emotions of other people. We throw temper tantrums when people disagree with us and unfriend them or slam them on talk shows or gossip about them. We troll and slander and fear-monger. We’re afraid of our neighbors and strangers and the people we elect to represent us.

How does this seem like the behavior of a healthy, adult population? And why aren’t we talking about why we won’t talk to each other? Are we, collectively, really that insecure in our own beliefs? I keep trying to convince myself this can’t possibly be true. I keep deciding that ultimately this is the only logical conclusion.

What does this have to do with saying the Pledge? For me, a lot. The reason I ultimately stopped saying the Pledge — and stopped singing the national anthem when I had occasion to do so (which, in all honesty, meant very little change in my life) — is that it was my first way to act out and start discussions in my classrooms about what it meant to be a citizen. Initially, I just said I didn’t believe in God. And then I said I didn’t believe in allegiance to a flag. And then I said I stopped feeling like I was part of a unified country. I said what I could as I gained the experience and terminology to help me explain myself, to help me explain that I wasn’t just another rebellious youth wearing dark make-up.

I stopped feeling like I wanted to participate in the group delusion that allowed for a proliferation of magnetic ribbons attached to the backs of cars that read: Support Our Troops, that allowed us to steal land and destroy it and keep destroying it and start a war to afford us the opportunity for even more destruction, that allowed us to lynch each other. Because I hate the charade of patriotism and because I hated feeling like I was a fake. I tell you these things because I suspect if you’re still with me, you’re either willing to open up a discussion/debate, or you felt the same way. I tell you these things because I think we need to start talking to each again, to start listening.

And because I think that all of us acting a little bit more like adults is the only thing that’s going to lead to a more just and equitable world.

Gulf Stream Waters
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