On The Pledge of Allegiance and Memory

A few months ago students at California college banned the Pledge of Allegiance on their campus. They expressed disdain for the Bush administration and did not believe they could ethically pledge allegiance to such a government. I have heard similar views expressed by young adults. Ironically, young liberals suffer from the same memory loss as their conservative opponents. The Pledge of Allegiance is not given to the current leaders of American society, it is a pledge of allegiance to the United States of America. There are two basic issues: the nature of an oath given to a nation and the concept of “memory.”

America is a society formed by immigrants — even Native Americans are immigrants from Asia. A society composed of disparate peoples may encounter problems in having shared memories. Every Passover, Jews recite the Exodus story from Egypt and thus share a common memory regardless of where in the world a Jew is telling the story. Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, Iraqi, Indian, and Greek peoples have many memories dating back thousands of years. These memories bond people long after the events have occurred.

There is little question Americans today share less with the collective memory of the nation than any prior time in history. I am continually shocked at lack of knowledge regarding the Bill of Rights not merely by students who seek to teach social studies, but by political leaders of this nation. The other day one of my student teachers said: “I’ll have to check with a book so tomorrow I can teach about the Bill of Rights.” She felt no embarrassment lacking knowledge of the Bill of Rights. I suspect she is like the California students who assume America’s past or present deals only with those who oppress people. I doubt if she had the slightest awareness of the fight for human rights made by Americans such as Eugene Debs, or Emma Goldman or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn or Walter White or A. Philip Randolph. Walter Reuther got his head bashed in defending the UAW against Ford, and, by the way, he also fought for integration and supported Martin Luther King. I feel pride in pledging allegiance to all those wonderful people who battled against evil. The problem is that many today lack a common memory about people who defended the Bill of Rights.

Shared societal memory has a power that transcends one’s daily existence. In sharing the Passover story I, as a Jew, each year am reminded of how my ancestors were persecuted. This compels me today to fight for the rights of gays or Romas or anyone whose rights are abridged. My participation in the collective memory of being a Jew compels me to be concerned about the rights of Palestinians. I am shocked by the actions of the California students. Why do they assume in giving a pledge of Allegiance one only gives it to oppressors?

I have continually been asked by present day conservatives and Republicans why I have such concern for “terrorists.” I always reply, “Because I am an American. Being an American who was raised to respect and honor the Bill of Rights forces me to defend anyone who has been accused, but not convicted of a crime.” About sixty years ago, Senator Robert Taft, Republican from Ohio, led his party in the Senate. He was a true conservative. I don’t have a doubt that if Taft was alive today he would be appalled and shocked at his party’s disregard for the Constitution. Contemporary conservatives are anything but conservative because, in the name of security, they would abrogate our past. Could anyone believe Hamilton or Madison or Jefferson would oppose abandoning habeas corpus or refusing to offer speedy trials to those indicted for a crime?

In entering the US armed forces I did not pledge allegiance to a president, I gave a solemn oath to protect the Constitution against all enemies. I assume in taking that oath I embarked on a journey to protect rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights for ALL PEOPLE. Personally, I have always felt great pride for those men and women in our past who endured incredible hardships in the struggle for human rights. I believe we should abandon the present pledge of allegiance to a flag and give one to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Here is my version of a Pledge of Allegiance:

“I Pledge Allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America and promise to obey, support and defend the Bill of Rights against any opponent, domestic or foreign. I promise to oppose all efforts to abandon these rights and freedoms which are guaranteed to each individual in this society, native born or immigrant.”