Allegiance Quest

Would you pledge allegiance
to a country or organization
that has lost its moral compass?

My name is Brooke Allen, the speaker on the video. Because we’re now talking about “Making America Great Again” I’ve begun thinking a lot about what that means. 

I was born in 1952 in Philadelphia and that gave me citizenship in the United States of America by birth.

My mother was born in the 1920’s in West Virginia and that also made her a citizen of the USA by birth. Her father was German and became a naturalized American citizen after he moved to the United States. My mother’s mother was Italian and she kept her Italian citizenship her entire life. Soon after she was born my mom’s family moved to Florence in Italy. Right at the beginning of World War II my mother and her father (but not her mother) returned home to the United States. Her parents never saw each other again.

My father was born in Havana, Cuba but since both his parents were Americans he was a citizen of the United States also. He grew up in Latin America but when World War II started he returned home and then he fought the Japanese as a paratrooper in the Philippines and Saipan.

My parents told me that the United States of America is two things:

  • The United States is a place that is mostly in North America.
  • The United States is an idea and a dream.

The idea is that we govern ourselves (rather than let ourselves be governed by one person, a family, or another country) and we all have an equal right to liberty and justice.

That is the idea, but it is just a dream.

In reality we are far from perfect; we do not govern ourselves very well and everyone does not have equal liberty and justice.

My parents said that the mission is to make our dream a reality.  It is a worthy mission even though it will never be achieved. I could spend my entire life working on realizing this dream and die an old man without having achieved perfection and still my life would have been worth living.

My parents explained that rights come with responsibilities. If my rights are violated then I have the same right to defend myself as anyone else. But if a weak person’s rights are violated then the strong must step up otherwise we cannot say we all have equal rights; we would only have rights for the strong.

Although it feels good to be part of something bigger than oneself, everyone has to do their part.

My parents spent most of their early years outside the United States. However, when war broke out they came home.

But, what did does it mean to “come home” when your house is thousands of miles away.

For my parents, the special thing about the United States was that it was a place where we were all committed to these same ideas concerning self-government and equal rights to liberty and justice. Although we share our dreams wherever we were in the world, when we were under threat we all had a place we could flock together. That is the place we call home.

That wasn’t true in Italy after the Fascists took over. The Fascists were more interested in being strong than in protecting the weak. Benito Mussolini expressed it perfectly when he said, “It’s better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a sheep.”  Mussolini wanted Italy to be the apex predator whereas the United States back then was more like a bunch of sheep huddling together to protect their backs against predators.

My parents told me that when you are fighting for liberty and justice for all, you are not just trying to beat your enemy into submission.

They said you aren’t done until your enemy has the same rights as you. In personal terms, World War II wasn’t over for my mother until she could move back to Florence and feel like she had equal rights and everyone had each other’s back. My parents said that “equal rights for all” is very different from “equal right for us but not for them.”

My father would not tell war stories. He said, “War is hell; I’d rather not remember.” He said that when going to war the question is not, What is worth dying for? Dying is easy. People die every day defending their right to smoke cigarettes and not wear seat belts. To die is not a sin.

He said killing is a sin, so the question is, What is worth killing for? Seeing a buddy die is horrible but the worst thing is when you look through your gun-sight at someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, or someone’s husband and know you are about to execute a man for the crime of wanting to kill you as much as you want to kill him. That, he said, is when you glimpse evil in your own soul.

My parents taught me the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America.

It goes like this:

“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.”

My parents told me that to “pledge allegiance” means to swear perpetual loyalty to something.

In other words, once you make a pledge people will expect that you won’t be changing your mind any time soon. It’s like marriage. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you should let people know when you’ve changed your mind. If you are no longer willing to honor your pledge, announce it, and say what new things you will pledge to instead (if anything).

They explained that the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America sounded really good but it left many questions unanswered.

Am I pledging allegiance to the United States of America no matter what it stands for?

Are we saying that in the United States we actually have liberty and justice for all? Clearly we don’t.

They talked about the “one nation” and “indivisible” parts. That means that we agree not to divide into two teams – like the north team and the south team, or the white team and the black team, or the red team and the blue team – and then say we have equal rights, but only for our team. “One nation indivisible” means we all defend each other’s rights, even the rights of people you don’t like.

Then my parents asked what “under God” means to me because they weren’t sure. Does it mean there is a higher authority than our elected government that we can’t see? Or does it mean we are protected by God? Or does it mean God is on our side? Whose God are we talking about and what does it mean if you don’t believe there is a God or just aren’t sure.

So sometimes I include “under God” when I said the pledge in school and other times I didn’t. Eventually I just dropped it.

When the Vietnam war broke out and I stopped pledging allegiance to the United States but only to the idea of liberty and justice for all. I thought it was unjust that people who could get into college and afford it could avoid being drafted to fight. Also, I thought the war with Vietnam was unjust.

This commitment to my pledge had consequences.

For example, I did not apply for an exemption from the draft because I was a student. That is why I was drafted during my third year at University when most of my friends weren’t. It’s kind of ironic that because I honored my pledge to liberty and justice for all, I was ordered to fight for a country that I believe did not honor liberty and justice for all.

However, the draft ended on January 28, 1973 – just two days before I was due to report – and I didn’t have to go so I don’t know what I would have done. All I know is that the decision not to avoid the draft was based on the principle that if I make a pledge I should keep it.

Since then I have not been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on a regular basis. I don’t know why, I just haven’t. It is probably because nobody was asking me to.

Actually, I was not even thinking much about what it means to be an American until recently when politicians started talking about Making America Great Again.

So, in 2016 I decided to write a new pledge just for myself; one that I understood and that I could commit to. I started with the one my parents taught me as a child.

Do I believe that my country is indivisible? No. Why can’t the country divide itself it wants to? So I left that out. Czechoslovakia decided to split up and that went well.

Is it under God? I’m not sure what that means, so I left that out.

Do we have liberty and justice for all? No we don’t. It would be nice, but in a place as big as ours it is never going to happen.

But the idea of liberty and justice for all is a good one, so let me pledge allegiance to the idea that all people have a right to liberty and justice. That empowers people to fight for equal rights and it obligates me to be on their side.

Is self-government a good idea? I was taught that it was, but what happens when the people of a country become uninterested in making good decisions, helping their neighbors, protecting the rights of the weak, defending themselves, or accepting responsibility for their actions? What if these people democratically elect a dictator and turn over power to him or her. If that happens, even if we call it “democracy” because people voted, is it still self-government?

What if that happens in my country? I don’t want to pledge to fight the will of the majority. But I still pledge myself to the idea that all people have equal rights to liberty and justice and keep alive the dream that somewhere else true self-government will survive.

So, my pledge goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to the idea that all people have an equal right to liberty and justice and to the dream that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.[1]

My pledge is actually pretty weak; it does not obligate me to very much. For example, I am not agreeing in advance to be a soldier for any particular country regardless of circumstances.

Even so, I bet there are places in the world where saying this pledge in a town square will get you killed.

I hope that enough of my fellow citizens make a similar commitment and together we set a good example for the rest of the world.

But if that doesn’t happen, I hope somewhere others set a good example for us.

If you do make a pledge, whether mine, one you draft for yourself, or one you are asked to say in school, then please don’t just say it, but know what it means.

Then, when the time comes, honor your pledge by doing what you said you would do.

Otherwise, your pledge might sound nice but it isn’t worth anything.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

  • Have you make a pledge of allegiance to anything ever? Yes or No.
  • If so, what does the pledge say?
  • Did you mean it?
  • What rights does saying the pledge confer on you that you would not have if you had not make the pledge?
  • What obligations are you agreeing to take on in order to be true to your pledge?
  • What have you done to live up to your pledge?
  • In what ways have you failed to live up to your pledge?
  • What does it mean when someone says, “It feels like home.”
  • Where do you live?
  • Does it feel like home?

[1] I borrowed the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth” from a speech Abraham Lincoln gave on the site of a battle in the America Civil War. That war was about liberty and justice for all. I could have said “self-government survives somewhere” but that doesn’t bring tears to my eyes.

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