To what are we pledging allegiance?

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American children saluting the flag in 1934

The arrest last month of a sixth grader who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance is but the latest event in a long history of theatrical patriotism in the United States, a record that so often undermines the greatness that the symbolism is supposed to stand for.

The details are complicated — the student declined to stand, claiming that for black people, the flag represents centuries of racism, and the substitute teacher in charge of his class called a resource officer to remove him. The teacher had immigrated to this country from Cuba and suggested that the student could move elsewhere if he did not like conditions here. The conflict escalated from there, ending in the student being arrested for disruptive behavior. According to the student’s attorney, the case against him has now been dropped.

As with the controversy over NFL athletes kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, this incident confronts us with the question of why a nation would need official oaths and creeds.

The belief that we do is by no means original with the United States. One example, from the transition period between the ancient and medieval world, is Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a means of unifying an empire that increasingly lacked an answer as to what, beyond a mere desire for power, held it together as a political entity.

Comparing Rome to America will sound like a typical reaction of a leftist, a prediction of doom that we have heard for decades without result. Add in comparisons that I have made with the rise of fascism in the first half of the twentieth century, and many on the right wing will stop reading here.

But Rome did not fall in a day, and the parallels should not be ignored. Rome had large groups of people on its borders who wanted to share in the blessings of Pax Romana, and the empire had no consistent answer as to how to deal with them. The wealthy squabbled with each other for power, while

the labor that sustains a society was done by a large portion of the population who had limited access to climbing the rungs. What today we would call the middle class was a negligible entity, and what Roman identity meant was a question that lacked a single satisfactory answer.

The analogy is not perfect. We have been trying to fulfill Adam Smith’s description of his own country as a nation of shopkeepers, a nation in which the owners of small businesses are the structural members of democracy. We do have a lot in common, however, and our middle class is shrinking.

What the official patriotism illustrated by the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem symbolize is our attempt to inculcate an American identity. But unlike Constantine’s use of Christianity as a unifying element — One People, one God, one Constantine, to paraphrase a line from Harsh Realm — the notion of democracy as the force that pulls us all together is difficult to achieve, more difficult even than the emperor’s solution that ultimately failed.

The observation, more likely originating with Abba Eban than Winston Churchill, that we do the right thing after we have tried everything else captures the essence of a free society. Individual rights and codified personal choice do not lend themselves easily to marching in step. We may claim to love John Philip Sousa’s music, but Henry David Thoreau is more often on our playlists.

Another saying comes to mind here: The beatings will continue until morale improves. Or we will continue demanding that students and football players display sufficient adoration for national symbols while being told that many among us must continue to wait to enjoy the full blessings of the country being represented.

What can we point to that offers any promise of unity? Unlike ancient Rome, we have a constitutional protection against religion and state, though the right wing consistently works to undermine that particular wall. The fear among conservatives has a realistic basis, however. Unifying in freedom looks inherently contradictory, but we have done it time and again. And not just in the oft-cited example of World War II. We went to the Moon, and though human space flight has stalled in low Earth orbit, we have given the world pictures of Pluto and Ultima Thule. We built the Interstate Highway System and laid the foundation of a social safety net with Social Security and Medicare, among other programs.

These, of course, were partial unities, since they were achieved with significant opposition, but they are illustrations of what we can do when enough of us come together. And if unity is a goal, we must fulfill the duties that go along with it. Tilting the benefits of society’s resources toward the few is not unity. Reserving quality healthcare and education for the rich, concentrating power in the hands of bosses while denying it to workers, and disproportionately using police violence and harsh sentences against the poor is not unity. Those are demands that we submit to people who regard themselves as our betters.

If we insist on having a Pledge of Allegiance and the like — something that makes some sense in uniformed services, but not for school children — we have to earn the buy-in of the people who are expected to say the words.

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