Creating an appropriate topic for an article in any publication is the most daunting part of writing. Inevitably, it takes some degree of invention especially when your focus is not on news, and even if you are simply trying to report the facts, a good reporter learns to write between the lines. This prelude is to act as a disclaimer for the discussion in this piece. It was inspired by an informal debate between several staff members at a recent meeting of our own staff. Take from it what you will.
One staff member posited an interesting question to the group in response to a different staff member describing himself as an American: “I don’t understand how you can identify with such a large geographical region.” This particular person went on to describe himself as first as foremost a Rhode Islander, which one can argue is a Federalist point of view and does not take into consideration, for example, geographical differences within Rhode Island that come from having such a densely populated and diverse citizenry. The response to the Rhode Islander’s comments for another staff member was that allegiance to family and identification with ones own family was more important that possessing a national identity and allegiance.
“Allegiance” in American culture and history is one of the most defining aspects of our society, and as such there is seems to be a deep-rooted fear in our society that for some reason our collective allegiance will falter to the detriment of our country. Perhaps this is not an irrational fear, as our country was founded by the simple act of breaking our allegiance to the British Crown, and less than a century later we saw that self-professed unity in the Declaration of Independence falter with the redistribution of allegiances, divided between the Union and the Confederacy.
As Americans, we coddle ourselves and try to insist that everyone is as loyal to our country as we believe ourselves to be. There can be no other explanation to our paranoia about desecrating our flag, or the public demand for the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in our public schools. We soothe ourselves with these public acts of allegiance, and never stop to think how sincere they are. What kindergartener can understand what a full declaration of allegiance means, let alone understand the words and abstract concepts of the pledge itself: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”
This is one interpretation of what it means to be loyal to America. Its author, Francis Belamy, wrote it to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and it was not adopted officially as a national pledge until 1942. His original conception of the pledge included the words “equality and fraternity,” but due to widespread disapproval of equal rights for women and blacks, this phrase was not included in any widely read version of the final. Should this still represent our view of allegiance today – an irrefutable allegiance to a country without the promise of equality?
We have continued to redefine our national allegiance at every transitional moment in our history, from the state-by-state view of our nation under the Articles of the Confederation to the formation of a national Constitution thirteen years later, to the battle between those two ideologies in the Civil War, to the uprising of patriotism and national oneness during World War II. Unfortunately, what it means to profess allegiance to our country of such great geographical diversity has been in stasis since the introduction of the Pledge of Allegiance.
We cannot define what it means to profess our own loyalty to the United States of America, nor do we have the freedom to describe what that loyalty means to us in relation to all the other instances in which we must declare our loyalty: to our country, our state, our family, our friends, our religious institution, our ethical code, our work, our way of life. Indeed, it even varies as to whether we can group these into one Pledge of Allegiance or if we feel the desire to describe each of these loyalties separately.
Given this inability to be able to individualize our allegiances in a national context, it does not surprise me that people are now questioning this requirement to profess allegiance in a static manner to an ever-changing government and population. The reasons why we fight to defend, work for, or live in our country are all different, defined by geographical region, social and economic class, religious beliefs, education, and political ideologies. Without a way to voice these allegiances, we are seen not as individuals, but as a homogenous mass populous who can all recite the same pledge. Maybe it is that fear of homogeny that prompts us to identify as anything but “only Americans.”