Every morning in America, school children stand up to pledge allegiance to the American flag. By the time I meet them in my class, they are 15-16 years old and have been doing it for years. In the past I have asked my students, “Why do you pledge allegiance to the flag?” Most simply respond that they are expected to, or they may get in trouble if they don’t. Many have said they do it out of respect for the troops that have died for the flag, but there is nothing in the pledge that says anything about the military. Somebody has obviously told them this. I ask, “Have you ever thought about what it means?” Most students haven’t thought twice about it. “Why do you think you’re expected to do it?” They all have some kind of response related to showing respect. They have had this drilled into their heads that it’s disrespectful to America or the soldiers protecting our freedoms, not to pledge allegiance to the flag. I ask my kids if they even know what it means to pledge allegiance to something. Many do not.
There are words for slogans repeated over and over without critical thought like jingoism, propaganda, and indoctrination. There are even teachers and administrators that berate children publicly for failing to stop and say the pledge mid stride in the halls, the classroom or administrative buildings. I personally know of one student who was threatened by an administrator with calling in the school sheriff on her. Never mind the Supreme Court says that she doesn’t have to recite it. Why is this done?
What’s interesting is how clear this is to us when we characterize others. Our World History book discusses Fascist Italy during the 20’s and points out quite clearly how young students were taught to recite slogans to glorify the state as part of fascist indoctrination. I say this not to assert that America is full blown fascist because students pledge allegiance to the flag, but there is a parallel, and the goal is the same, to develop a blind, unthinking devotion to the state. I think the popular word is patriotism.
What does it mean to be patriotic? Patriotism means, “devoted love, support and defense of ones country”. I love my country if that means the neighborhoods I lived in, my family and the people I grew up with, I had a great childhood in America. The natural land and the people I have met here for the most part are worthy of love, support, loyalty and all that. But that’s not what it means. It means America’s institutions, laws, government and economic system. In this case, hell no, I don’t love America.
According to the pledge of allegiance, the flag represents the American republic. Should the citizenry pledge allegiance to its government? Absolutely not, that is fascist in nature. Such an act is contrary to common sense. If anything, the republic should pledge allegiance to its citizenry.
What patriotism means in practical terms is support for the ruling class’ institutions whether they are right or wrong. The military, the business class, American mythology, exceptionalism and the belief in the idea that god somehow favors Americans. If the criminals in charge of this system blow people up in far reaches of the world, rob the public, jail as many Blacks and poor folks that they possibly can, exploit the poor of the world, I should still offer them my dying loyalty. That is what most people mean when they say patriotism, I think. If that is patriotism I am not patriotic. Perhaps nationalism is a better term to use. The whole concept of the nation state is loaded with ideas that support bourgeois rule. Patriotism and nationalism are basically loyalty to the ideas, institutions and rules, of the ruling class.
The more you scrutinize all this, the more you see that it is all empty rhetoric and bullshit. Who has been unpatriotic according to the ruling class? Abolitionists, slave rebels, civil rights activists, black panthers, Vietnam draft resisters, the labor movement, communists, socialists and plenty of others who fought for justice against the so-called patriots who want to enslave and oppress. I want to be on that side of history. Patriotism in America means collusion with white nationalism, capitalism, imperialism, militarism, racism and a bunch of other things I don’t wish to be identified with.
Do we even live in, “one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all?” What a joke. There is no such thing as an American, “one nation”. Particularly class, race and even gender divide us. There is no liberty and justice for the poor in general, particularly black and brown youth, while the wealthy can do whatever they please to whomever they please because they run the joint. We should cease to pledge allegiance to the flag in class without some healthy discussion as to why it is done and if it should be done. Use this time as a way to discuss the larger issues of nationalism, patriotism, propaganda and whatever else you can connect to it.