The Pledge of Allegiance is for children, and Washington, D.C., embodies the worst America has to offer, while missing its best.
I collected my first paycheck in fifth grade, when my middle school paid me $200 to raise the flag every morning and lower it every evening. I admit, I wasn’t any good at it. Once or twice a week, I’d accidentally raise the thing upside-down. The principal would get a call from an angry passer-by, and so I’d turn red and waddle back down to the front entrance, lower the flag, and then raise it upside-up.
My father, a Navy vet, told me that an upside-down flag meant that the ship was in distress. I remember panicking as my pudgy little form rolled down three flights of stairs, hurrying to put the flag right. I fully believed that, at any moment, a SWAT team would burst into the school looking for Al-Qaeda. “Where are the terrorists?” they’d ask. Then I’d have to explain that the ship wasn’t actually in distress; I’d just put the flag up the wrong way. The policemen would scowl, hop back in their armored vans, and peel off back to Fort Dix.
That was in 2004, in the halcyon days of the George W. Bush administration, when Dubya was at the height of his popularity. Country singers were still shoving pro-war lyrics into songs about fried chicken.
Seventeen years seems like a long time, but it isn’t. If you’re old enough to rent a car and don’t find the idea of American nationalism slightly ridiculous—well, you haven’t been paying attention.
America has always been at its worst when it goes through its nationalist phases. I read in the latest issue of the Spectator World that Nigel Farage has been palling around with Donald J. Trump at Mar-a-Lago. According to Farage, President Trump begins all the fundraisers at his fortified resort by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Once again, I’m transported back to fifth grade at Sacred Hearts School. I imagine all of those nouveau richedonor types dressed up in our drab old uniform. I see an army of septuagenarian housewives, all Botox and silicone, dressed in plaid skirts and Mary Janes. They’ve got hands over their hearts, and they’re chanting, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” in that girlish, singsong way.
Believe me, dear reader, I’m not trying to be cruel! But the fact is, the Pledge was written for children. It was published circa 1892 in a children’s magazine called The Youth’s Companion. Its author, Francis Bellamy later recalled: “National feeling was at a low ebb. The patriotic ardor of the Civil War was an old story.” He decided that “the time was ripe for a reawakening of simple Americanism, and the leaders in the new movement rightly felt that patriotic education should begin in the public schools.”
Curiously, just last month, the town of Silverton, Colorado, (pop. 550) decided to stop opening its town meetings with the Pledge. Naturally, the community was outraged. Then the national media picked up the story so the whole country could be outraged.
No doubt Mayor Shane Fuhrman was acting with the very worst of intentions. He cited “general divisiveness this is creating in our community”—it being the Pledge, of course, and not his decision to nix it. Still, Mayor Fuhrman did the right thing, if for the wrong reason. Grown-ups shouldn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance, for the same reason the House chaplain shouldn’t open Congress with a few bars of “Jesus loves me, this I know/ For the Bible tells me so…” It’s a beautiful song, for sure, but a childish one. Probably because it was written for children.
Anyway, whatever purpose the Pledge was originally supposed to serve is irrelevant now. It has become another brickbat in this never-ending Culture War. It’s no longer a national symbol, but a nationalist one. When those Mar-a-Lagans pledge allegiance to the flag, they’re not saying, “I love this country.” They’re saying, “I love this country more than you do.”
This is the curse that befalls all of America’s national symbols. We take all of them—even the really quaint ones, like the Pledge—and turn them into something aggressive, slightly bitter. They’re so painfully forced they actually make us feel a little less proud to be American. The quality of patriotism is not strained. At least, it shouldn’t be. But ours certainly is.
I think overcompensating is the word I’m looking for. It’s too performative. It lacks the spontaneity, the joy, of true love—be it love for a woman or love of country. Whenever I come across someone with a “We the People” wifebeater, I want to stop them and say: “Hey, pal, relax. America’s not that bad.”
For example, there’s our decision to adopt the bald eagle for our country’s mascot. As Ben Franklin observed, the bald eagle is a “rank coward” and “a bird of bad moral character.” He was also right to favor the noble (if ludicrous) turkey: a fitting emblem for our noble (if ludicrous) country. But the bald eagle’s got a steely eye and a blood-chilling screech, so he got the job.
Then we have Congress’s selection of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. It’s an ugly, belligerent ditty about the War of 1812: a conflict best known for giving us “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The American people are generally believed to have favored “America the Beautiful,” and rightly so. But Katharine Lee Bates forgot to put in a line about rockets and bombs, so the honor went to Francis Scott Key.
Or take the National Mall, which must be one of the most depressing places on the planet. All the landmarks assembled there are totally inorganic and utterly soulless. They don’t inspire love or piety or courage. They stir no feeling at all except a vague dread.
To make matters worse, they’re all lumped together in one place like a graveyard so tourists can shuffle through and pay their respects. First, it’s the World War II vets. Next come the Korea vets. Then it’s a brief interlude with Mr. Lincoln, enthroned in glory, till finally (on our way back to the bus) we stop in on the Vietnam vets. Phew! Glad that’s over. Now it’s off to the Old Ebbitt for oysters and martinis.
One can’t help but think we bundle these monuments on the Mall for the same reason we shove our aged relatives in nursing homes. We know we’ll never live up to their example, and so the memory of their great deeds—their great sacrifice—fills us with shame. So we plop them in a pleasant little garden where we can visit them as we like…or not. Mostly not.
No, those dreary headstones don’t say, “You will be remembered,” so much as, “You will be forgotten, but don’t worry. We’ll remind ourselves every now and then.”
This is one of life’s great ironies. America is the greatest country in history, and yet Washington is perhaps worst city that has ever existed. It reflects none of our nation’s virtues and all of its vices: our bloated bureaucracy, our militarism, our statesmen’s total lack of imagination. Certainly, it has nothing to rival Big Ben in London or the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Maybe it could have, if we hadn’t insisted on cluttering the city with these pseudo-Greek monstrosities. Maybe a real national symbol might’ve grown up on its own, in the cracks of the marble and granite. Instead, our capital look like a Forest Lawn cemetery. If any of us still honor our dead, it’s entirely despite the efforts of the National Park Service.
Every year, around this time, I like to imagine a different sort of America. It’s an America that chose the turkey for its national symbol, rather than the bald eagle. It opted for “America the Beautiful” as its national anthem instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Our dead heroes are honored, not on the National Mall, but on every mantelpiece and in every town common. We don’t make class trips in eighth grade to say thank you to a bunch of statues: we put flags and flowers on our fathers’ graves. We make a tribute of gratitude every day in our own hearts.
Old Glory flies from every porch on every street in the country, and no grown-up would be caught dead pledging allegiance to it. It’s a freer, fairer America. It’s a kinder, calmer America. It’s a young republic, not a dying empire. Sure, it may not be a shining city on a hill. It may not the greatest superpower in human history. But, hey, it’s home.