O’ Say, Can You See The Irony?

When the fabric of the flag outvalues the fabric of society.

So many people are outraged about the fact that some have chosen not to salute a cloth banner, yet they have no qualms about the fact our social fabric is being torn apart. O’ say, can you see the irony?

Awhile back, one of my Facebook friends posed the question as to whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance should still be required, particularly for schoolchildren. After reading this article in The Root, watching the accompanying short documentary What So Proudly We Hail, and observing the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest to the national anthem, I find myself revisiting that question with a greater understanding.

The Pledge and Star-Spangled Banner have served as motivative tools of patriotism for generations, and they’re powerful tools at that, particularly because they’re usually first introduced when citizens are very young — during the stage of life when indoctrination works best. The Pledge and national anthem instills in them a sense of duty and importance, entwining with the identities of grade schoolers whom are made to recite and sing words they don’t necessarily comprehend. It becomes part of their social programming, a badge of national pride.

Often a staple of many ceremonies from school plays to sporting events, the Pledge and national anthem are associated with importance and belonging. For citizens (particularly the very young) to doubt each of these, it is to doubt part of their identity as well as what they were taught. This is further complicated when the candy-coated version of history they learned early on starts to erode, revealing bitter facts that are tough to swallow.

The prospect of parting from this sugar-coated reality is frightening as it becomes difficult for the child to picture who they are without the rituals they were made to embrace. Some adjust and continue to grow, keeping an open mind. Others prefer to adhere to the only ideals they’ve ever known, doing everything in their power to uphold and defend them.

Just recently, two different athletes have faced vicious attacks via social media for what some deemed as Anti-American behavior. Gabriel Douglas was shunned for not placing her hand over her heart during the national anthem at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. And most recently, Colin Kaepernick received criticism for refusing to stand during the national anthem at a preseason football game. Some of the backlash was outright disturbing, including death threats and the burning of replicas of his jersey.

Back when I was in grade school, long before the events of 9/11 and the widespread concern for homeland security in the face of terrorism, some classmates would regard students who refused to pledge to the flag (due to religious beliefs) with uncertainty and disdain. In hindsight, I see just how frighteningly effective and fast indoctrination works; How quickly the Us vs. Them mindset is adopted. If one could rebuke their fellow citizen so quickly and aggressively as a result of personal beliefs, how quickly could that same person kill in the name of their country?

If you think about it, it makes for a perfect strategy for priming young citizens to eventually become soldiers to fight for their country’s honor without question. Considering that the national anthem was penned after the British burned Washington in 1814, and pledge of allegiance was also adopted during times of constant war amidst fears that citizens would somehow become allies with the enemy, it’s not surprising that a system was put into place to maintain national morale.

As The Root article explains, the third and penultimate verse of the Star Spangled Banner contains dark stanzas in which Francis Scott Key vents his disdain for the runaway slaves who joined the opposition — in a desperate bid for freedom — and his satisfaction for their subsequent deaths. This verse was omitted from the version of the anthem many have come to revere. It’s something I’ve only recently learned and felt is worth sharing since there are people — including the ardent critics of those who protest the anthem — whom are unaware of this important piece of history.

Today, like in much of history, if a citizen challenges faulty government practices or seeks to improve a flawed system, that person is said to hate or is disloyal to their country. I think it’s ridiculous that people are attacking one another for not properly saluting the flag when they are probably unaware that the current salute is not how it was always done. This country has always been in a constant state of flux, no matter how gradual, and that is evident in a shift of some of its practices, including how Americans regard the flag.

Over eighty years ago, Americans saluted the flag not with hand over heart, but with the Bellamy Salute (palm outstretched toward the banner), which Hitler loyalists later adopted and modified to show respect to their regime. In fact, that was the very reason why the America retired the Bellamy Salute in 1942 for the one used today, to disassociate itself from the growing fascism in 1930s Germany. Ironically, America was embroiled in its own struggles with racial inequality regarding the oppressive treatment of its black population.

There’s no way around the fact that America was built upon shaky foundation as far as human rights are concerned. There’s plenty of historical evidence to back that up. Yet, one of the many things that makes this country great is that we have the opportunity to learn from history, grow, and evolve…if we so choose. If we don’t, I fear our very humanity may wave a banner of a different sort — one without red or blue.

In order to prove that one loves their country, must a citizen remain beholden to its old customs and ideals, especially when said practices have sanctioned inequality and injustice? The thing that makes nationalism so powerful — much like religion — is that it thrives on ritual as well as fear of change, something different than what is presently known. And part of that power entails discouraging individual thought that may contradict the agenda of each of these institutions. People who think critically aren’t as easily led, blinded, swayed, or controlled as those who choose to accept what’s been perpetuated for many years simply because of its longevity.

I understand that there’s a certain degree of pain that comes with learning that one’s lifelong customs are flawed, especially when the lesson comes later in life (I’ve seen it happen to others and experienced it myself on occasion). It is much easier to hold onto what we were led to believe rather than seek out the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or problematic. It’s frustrating to believe you’ve invested so much your whole life in learning only to realize a sizeable chunk of that knowledge was either misinformation or no longer applies. Yet, our future depends on our ability to adapt.

The late Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist, once aptly stated:

“The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Some are so enamored by ceremony, yet disregard the fact that the majority of citizens who critique the unjust practices that still plague this nation aren’t aiming to tear the country asunder, but help to make it truly align with the doctrines the aforementioned hold so dear, just as our predecessors led the charge to amend the constitution to be less hypocritical and more inclusive, to truly be ONE nation. INDIVISIBLE. With liberty and justice for ALL.