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In Honor of American Independence Day, A Post about How Creepy The Pledge of Allegiance Is. Happy Birthday, America!

I guess I had better start with a disclaimer, though the necessity annoys me: I like America. I mostly like being an American. There are some areas in which we could use an upgrade, no question, but overall I feel fortunate to have been born and raised here. /disclaimer

Now to business. The Pledge of Allegiance is freaking creepy. Seeing children lined up with their hands over their hearts, solemnly reciting a pledge with political and rhetorical implications they cannot possibly comprehend, gives me the cold willies.

Oh, I know it doesn’t really do anything to them. It’s not contractually binding. Hell, I recited the pledge as a kid, and look at my liberal pinko ass now. But to those who say “Lighten up, it doesn’t really do anything,” I have to respond, “Then why bother?” For most people, the answer seems to be some combination of nostalgia for their own childhood experiences and the belief that it’s right and proper to instill unquestioning patriotism in children at school. Thus, much of my problem with the Pledge is that I am knee-jerk suspicious of both of these ideas.

As a progressivist (and indeed something of a transhumanist, though we don’t need to get into that here or you’ll think I’m weird) I reject all arguments from nostalgia. For one, they usually are based in misconceptions or outright falsehoods about what the supposedly awesome past even looked like. Check the Wikipedia entry for The Pledge of Allegiance. Most of us know that the odious phrase “under God” was added in 1954, but did you know about the other revisions? For example, did you know that the original wording “my flag” was changed to “the flag of the United States” in 1923 because it was feared that immigrants would think they were pledging to their flags of origin? (Really?) For that matter, did you know that Bellamy, the author of the Pledge, was a socialist who wanted to include dirty words like “equality” in his Pledge but decided against it in the end because he knew the school superintendents to whom he was marketing the thing were bigoted jackholes?

Here’s a better question: If you did know these facts about the Pledge, when did you learn them? Was it in school, or later? (I bet I know.) The Pledge functions like an incantation, and people who perceive it that way feel the patriotic magic the way they swell with the spirit when they recite prayers. That spell fades in the scouring light of rhetorical and political machinations, however, so we do not teach schoolchildren the details of the Pledge’s history in most cases. It tends to be presented as a sacred mantra, carved into America’s foundation by Moses or George Washington or Elvis and preserved in its pristine form for eternity.

Which brings us to the second assertion of Pledge enthusiasts, that patriotism is something that should (or can) be instilled in public school children. The performance of patriotism has always confused me; being a citizen is not like supporting a sports team. I don’t know if America is the greatest country ever in the history of countries, in part because I don’t even know what that would look like. More to the point, I don’t *need* America to be that. The world is not a competition. It’s just the place where we’re all trying to live. Further, the responsibilities of citizenship are important, but many of them are thwarted, not enriched, by blind allegiance. We should not encourage our young people to make allegiances to anything across the board. Thinking, committed citizens need line-item veto powers and access to resources that allow them to make informed appraisals, not baseless pride handed down from on high.

Have a lovely holiday, Americans–and a lovely day to the rest of you as well.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. July 4, 2013 at 1:03 pm —

    This is the revision I’d make to the current pledge:

    “I pledge allegiance to the people of the United States of America, and to the Republic which stands for them: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    I’d have a lot more confidence in politicians who made that pledge at the opening of each session.

  2. July 4, 2013 at 9:29 pm —

    The Bellamy salute is really more fitting to the nature and common use of the pledge. If anything should be the object of such a pledge I vote for the Bill of Rights (especially amendments 1, 4, and 5 in this political climate).

  3. July 9, 2013 at 9:45 pm —

    My proposed pledge update:
    I pledge allegience to the Flag
    Of the United States of America
    One Nation,
    Divided by God
    With Liberty and Justice
    For the Rich.

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