I keep remembering my childhood these days. Partly because my three-year-old asks about it every night as I put him to bed. Things are coming back to me that I haven't thought of in years.
Today I remembered how I used to feel about the Pledge of Allegiance.
For an American who grew up in the U.S., it's probably impossible to quite visualize with just how alien it felt to me when I first encountered it. I was six--which I suppose is the same age you were (if you're American) unless they do it in kindergarten. But I just had never seen such a thing before. And all the flags hung from suburban houses, as if the owners wanted to remind everyone what country we were in. In France I'd see flags on government buildings, maybe a handful extra on the 14 of July. (Which, by the way, I've never heard called Bastille Day in France, just the 14th of July.) And I had never, never pledged or saluted a flag--or seen anyone do so--in France. Not in school, certainly not in church (as in the U.S. we did at AWANA), not anywhere. My French schoolmates--who were plenty patriotic, I might add--would have found it very weird.
As did I.
I don't quite remember asking my parents what "pledge" and "allegiance" meant, but I know that I would have, and that they would have taken the time to fully explain. I do remember the sense of strangeness I felt when I grasped the concept: Really? To a flag? I remember the sense of dislocation I had when, a few years later, I was taught about flag protocol and learned how symbolic the height at which a flag was flown was--and remembered the dozens of churches I had been in which put an American flag and a Christian flag onstage at identical heights. And the flagpoles, where the Christian flag was flown below.
I was a Christian kid. It had been made abundantly clear to me that God is the most important thing. It really didn't take a lot of logic, from there, to the conclusion that something was wrong.
I mean, you could argue about what allegiance means. When Jesus said you can't serve two masters he didn't mention your nation as one of them, so, you could argue the point. People have a lot of reasons for what they feel about a nation, and I didn't have the same reasons a lot of people do. I was born in Northern Ireland as an American citizen, raised in France, occasionally spent a year in Texas; my father spent most of his childhood and youth in Europe, my mother a lot of hers in Brazil. I guess I was a little detached, and I suppose you could argue about whether this was a good thing. That argument's a little beyond the scope of this blog post; I'm tired and sick, and my kid will wake up soon, so maybe another day.
By my next couple sojourns in the U.S.--ages 10 and 13--I'd grown pretty uncomfortable with the pledge. While many Americans argued fiercely for or against the "under God" part, my problem was squarely with "I pledge allegiance to the flag." Allegiance sounded awfully serious to me; it sounded like the kind of thing you should only give to God.
Well, I wasn't a particularly brave kid. I never stood up and proclaimed myself a conscientious objector. I tended to mouth vague sounds instead of reciting. I remember working on a pledge to God that was supposed to have the same cadences as the flag pledge, so you could just recite that one instead and no-one would notice. (I quit halfway through, as I did with many things at that age.) I spent so much time in school feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed or different, it really just felt like part of the general trend.
It's been so long, now, since I've been expected to recite it, but I know just how I would feel. It's so hard to explain it, because I know it's so normal here. What if I simply said: please imagine a classroom of kids in Russia with their hands on their hearts pledging their flag. OK, now China. Now Pakistan. Now Iran.
Does it feel strange at all?
Years after all this, I learned that there was a time when French school kids did salute and pledge their flag. I learned it when researching How Huge the Night with my mother. There's a scene in the book where the young protagonist learns that he and his classmates are now expected to salute the French flag every morning with the same stiff-armed salute the Nazis used. This was a real order from Marshal Petain, head of the collaborationist--and self-proclaimedly fascist--Vichy government. The village I write about, which later saved Jews, quietly defied it.
When I learned that, I wondered if it might not be the reason they don't do flag-salutes in France now.
I believe in doing right by your country. I believe in doing right by others, period. But I am leery of patriotic pageantry, and treating the flag as a holy object. I am leery of loud demands for shows of loyalty, and the louder they are, the more I worry.