Democratic Underground  

Lemming Patriots
July 25, 2002
By Terry Sawyer

Republicans use patriotism the way snipers use tall buildings, itís just a way of getting a better shot at the people they want to take out anyway. So imagine my revulsion, as the entire Senate leap frogged over one another for the en masse photo op of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I expect Republicans to use love of country to drape their own repugnantly divisive aims, but I would hope that Democrats would save the bravado for something a bit more substantive.

In this post 9-11 era, being yappily and uncritically American has become mandatory for anyone that doesnít was to be screeched into a corner by journalistic hordes who conflate homogeneity with empathy for victims of terrorism. At itís most pathetic, it reminds me of my high school geometry teacher who made up for his obvious dorkiness by trying to placate the jocks with better grades and attempts to wedge in on all their good oleí boy joshing. I presume that liberals have to rush breathlessly to declare their allegiance because Republicans have been so successful at casting the defense of liberty, equality and tolerance as anti-American. God knows that to declare the pledge unnecessary, to declare atheists as equally American, or to suggest that maybe itís not up to governmental institutions to advocate belief in God would surely bringing a thousand outraged Budweisers crashing down on the arm rests of their Lazy Boys.

This is not to suggest that I particularly object to the pledge. Truth be told, I do believe that to be a citizen of this country, one should love and perpetuate its basic principles. But I donít know why the hell you should have to declare that to anybody else or take part in some groupthink exercise designed to make you to. Interestingly, equality was axed from original versions of the pledge because itís authors knew that many people at the time objected to words loaded with the implication that African Americans and women might be equal which makes its encapsulization of our ideals corruptly incomplete. But that just makes Byron York's yelpy column in the National Review all that much more hilarious. York claims that watching the senatorial herd gaggle together to declare themselves sufficiently under God is really a vindication of original intent. For those of you who might not know, original intent is the pidgin theory whereby Republicans selectively comb the writings of their favorite framers and then use that narrow skein to determine what dead men would think about circumstances they could not have possibly foreseen. Itís only slightly more reliable than holding a multiple choice test under a pigeonís cloaca. Yet, York maintains that: ďThe Senate made clear that it supports "under God" not because it sounds good, or that many Americans support it, but because it is clearly consistent with the text and intent of the Constitution.Ē Then why didnít the framers create loyalty oaths for children? If itís so consistent with their thinking and in line with their intentions, why wasnít it written until the country was whipped into a frenzy looking for communists in their Cheerios.

Whatís more ridiculous is the implication that such oaths operate as some sort of fealty litmus quiz. As if traitorís children are like water phobic witches and will simply puddle if they are forced to recite an oath to the country they and their parents are secretly trying to destroy. What they do manage to do however is make themselves available for scoundrels of the most bottomless sort. To even begin to disagree about such things is to be cast beyond the pale as some sort of revolutionary flunky or dirty infiltrator. Worse, the typical conservative willingness to conflate patriotism with the policies of other conservatives to the extent that honest disagreement becomes tantamount to treason. Such dangerously defined loyalty was on display like Lady Justiceís free titty when the resurrected Ashcroft (hey, his words, not mine) declared that anybody who questioned the Patriot Act was giving nipple to jihadists. Not to mention that many people of good faith conscientiously object to the pledge as an inappropriate mingling of nationalism with religion, itself anathemic to their vision of Christianity. For those conscientious objectors, we can expect a steamy dollop of disdain followed up with Bill OíReilly asking why they donít just pack up and move since this country is really just fundamentalist real estate with a bunch of unruly tenants who havenít figured that out yet.

Yet I donít think atheists should go about scouring our culture for the slightest shadow of our overwhelming Faith in an Almighty. There should be some room in the public sphere to acknowledge that many of our fellow countrymen, myself included, are existentially driven by a certain set of beliefs even as they are legally bound to respect the liberties and lives of those not so inclined. I think it is strategic as well as more intellectually sound to try to distinguish what practices and institutional language are coercive backdoors for frothing religionists and which are simply harmlessly natural effects of belief.

It would have been far more pleasant if the decision of the 9th circuit had been followed with a well-reasoned public debate rather than the intimidation on such a grand scale that the judges were forced to issue their fawn-legged retraction. I canít imagine that itís a very good precedent for judges to back flip under reactive roar of an unreflective media. Much to the chagrin of our brimstone singed theocrats, it has become well-established constitutional law that our public schools should not be places where dominant religions are able to indoctrinate others by becoming subtly indistinguishable from the apparatus of government. The pledge, while not necessarily in that same vein, can certainly reasonably be viewed as such. Itís a shame that the 9th circuitís decision did not inaugurate a more nuanced debate.

Patriotism should mean that you promote the ideals of the Constitution as they have come to mean in our contemporary culture. Your allegiance is your love of freedom, not your lockstep echo of the Fox News Network. The most disturbing aspect of the pledge of allegiance discussion was that there wasnít one. No one would have dared. With a Republican in the White House, a media jerking ever rightward, and a resurgence of redneck populism, patriotism is again defined as standing in idolatrous awe of the cult of the flag. Chairman Mao with his unyielding view of compulsory love of country, in the narrowest sense, would have approved immensely. He might have even had enough sense of humor to nudge his way between Hillary Clinton and Trent Lott for the frightful display of cowed unity.

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