in the ‘hood

In my new town, I am frequently called upon to do things I have never done before, or have never done with any regularity. Some of them, like hauling my own trash, are tedious but not really a big deal. Some of them are more troublesome. Near the top of that list comes the opening of the monthly school board meeting, at which we are all called upon to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

My background is probably somewhat unusual: I have never in my life been required or even asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis. When I was in third grade, some parents at my grade school became deeply upset that we weren’t saying the Pledge every morning. Our teachers put aside the regularly scheduled social studies programming for a few days, and we studied the Pledge of Allegiance. We looked up all the words we didn’t know and talked about them. We watched a little film on the history of the Pledge. We discussed the addition of “under God” (“your parents will probably remember when that phrase wasn’t there”) and talked about what God that meant and whether one might feel alienated if one believed in a different God, or gods, or didn’t believe in God at all. After due consideration of all these points, we voted. Yes, that’s right — we voted. Seven and eight and nine and ten and eleven and twelve year olds voted on whether and when we ought to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school. We voted for the option of maybe saying it for a special occasion, but it would of course be optional, and no one would be forced to participate. It never came up again.

I went to a small elementary school in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, Iowa. The students were mostly the children of doctors and lawyers and professors. I had fellow students who were Indian and Korean and Israeli, but none who were black. (African-Americans constitute, as I recall, 2% of the overall population in Iowa but 26% of the prison population; in Wyoming, I suspect, the numbers are even smaller, though probably similarly skewed.) It was not, then, the most realistic setting in the world, but it is the one I grew up in, and there are experiences, like books, that you may get past but never get over. That vote on the Pledge is one for me — both the fact of the voting and its outcome.

I try to go to the school board meetings here every month (I say try because I don’t always last until the end — after two hours, my resolve does begin to fade), but I don’t say the Pledge. In my younger years, I would have remained seated while everyone else stood. Because I am trying to forestall the day when the locals start running up the hill to the library, flaming torches in hand, yelling “Burn the witch!”, I now stand for the Pledge and the national anthem, but I don’t put my hand over my heart, and I don’t join in. It’s the best compromise I can make.

I was explaining this to an old friend (who, in fact, went to the same grade school I did, though her memories of it may differ somewhat), who wanted to know what objection I had to the Pledge. Was it the God part? No, I said, or not exactly–since I believe in God (the Christian God, no less!), I don’t object to talking about Him, but I don’t think others should be forced to do so. What I really object to is the whole idea of nationhood.

There has been a meandering discussion on Hermits Rock of late on the subjects of nationhood, nationality, citizenship, immigration, race, and other such small topics. Like Jeremy, I feel very little attachment to the United States as a nation, but I don’t have his reasons. I grew up in the US, in a household that was, despite its churchgoing, largely secular. When I lived in the Chicago area, I often got asked what nationality I was. The first time it happened I was at an almost total loss for words. My first thought was that the questioner was trying to determine if I was legal — a nonsensical thought, since I am in appearance as white as white can be. That in itself does not, of course, prevent me from being a foreigner, but it would limit me to being a foreigner of northern European extraction, and people do not seem particularly concerned about their presence in this country. I stammered and finally said, “Uh. . . American?”, with that ever so annoying rising inflection, as if I were questioning the fact.

What the questioner wanted to know, as it turned out, was just what kind of northern European I was. “I mean, I’m Polish, and my friend here is Irish,” she said. I explained that I was little bit of both, plus English, German, Swiss, probably French, a pinch of Native American, and God knows what else. She still didn’t seem satisfied: she wanted me to identify as one of these things, and I don’t. My ancestors have been on these shores far too long for me to feel any allegiance to their home countries. The first of them, German draft dodgers and fourth or fifth sons from England, arrived before the Revolutionary War and some of them fought in it (not, I presume, the draft dodgers). I could, if I wanted, belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution, though no one in my family has for generations, in honor of Marian Anderson.

But in truth I stammered my reply to the woman because I truly didn’t know what to say. I don’t think of myself as having a nationality. I know that I am American in cultural ways that are indelible, even if I forsake large parts of American culture. But the notions of nationality and citizenship have never made sense to me. Because I happen to have been born within a particular set of imaginary lines, I should therefore feel (and even pledge!) an allegiance to the entity encompassed by those invisible lines, to this thing called a nation? Why?

My friend (remember her? — I apologize for the meandering nature of this narrative) brought up the social contract. Didn’t I have some obligation to the country because of the things the country provided for me? Well, yes: I have the obligation to pay taxes, which I do and to obey laws, which I mostly do (I won’t say completely — I’ve been known to drive over the speed limit). I reap certain benefits from being a citizen, and in turn I accept certain of the chains that come with it. But I can’t believe that accepting those chains carries with it an obligation of eternal allegiance to the republic. The republic in question hasn’t even been around all that long, at least not when considered in the broader sweep of human history.

I believe in loyalty, I told my friend. I am even somewhat hung up on it, especially when it comes to family and to friends. And I believe in an overall allegiance to humanity — not that I don’t criticize them, God knows, but I believe that if your neighbor has fallen in the ditch, you should help him out. I just don’t ask to see what kind of papers my neighbor is carrying before I help him out.

I was not at any immigration rallies on Monday (some photos and reporting from Chicago), and thus I did not face the question of what, if any, flag to march under. It has filled my heart with gladness to watch the marches around the country in the past month. Three years ago I attended the launch of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in Chicago, which was more or less a nonevent in the local and national news (if for no other reason than “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride” is quite a mouthful). It was, however, a part of the mobilization that resulted in what we’ve seen these past few weeks. That movement is something I could pledge to — but the key word there may be movement: a group of people, an idea, a groundswell with no borders.