Every morning in school, millions of children pledge their allegiance to the flag. But the flag itself is a piece of cloth with colored ink, probably made in China. It’s not imbued with divine powers. It doesn’t think and feel. And it doesn’t care about your allegiance.
The flag is of course a powerful symbol. And institutions use symbols to inspire and motivate. In that sense the flag does have real power and importance. People have sacrificed themselves for this literal symbol, and I don’t mean to question that or demean it.
But powerful symbols can also be misused, especially when there is blind allegiance to them. The common trope is a crooked politician draping himself in the flag while violating the core values and principles that flag represents. And those who object are summarily dismissed as un-patriotic and treasonous.
This kind of blind patriotism is focused on “otherness”. It’s not about honoring what makes us strong. It feeds an “Us vs Them” and “America First” mentality. These are popular chants, but they are not our core principles.
No, allegiance should not be given to a symbol, which is just an image or object that represents something greater. Allegiance belongs instead to that thing which a symbol represents, and in this case we are talking about the core principles of the United States.
The Core Principles of the United States
If the flag and “America First” are not core principles of the United States, then what are our principles? We can have different opinions about this, but I’ll share my thoughts. I take them from our history, our founders, and our documents. We can start with the words of the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men[*] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Preamble to The Constitution of the United States continues this (emphasis mine).
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And if we say the Pledge of Allegiance to its end we find.
[…] with Liberty and Justice for All.
I would also include words The New Collossus (aka, the Statue of Liberty Poem).
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This is what makes America great, and these are the principles for which we should stand.
Personal liberty and freedom is the foundation and bedrock of the United States. Liberty means that we must not allow the government to intrude into our lives, to restrict our way of life, our behavior, and our political and religious views. The founders would have been deeply disturbed by our militarized police force, our warrantless wiretapping, and the general erosion of civil liberties we have seen, particularly since the USA PATRIOT Act. I personally agree with Benjamin Franklin’s quote.**
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
The founding fathers felt that power corrupts and deeply mistrusted government, including our own. This is why our Constitution sets forth limits on governmental powers, in particular in the first Article.
Article I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The founders protected dissent, valuing a free and independent press and the right to assembly and petition the government for a redress of grievances. We must be vigilant against a government that seeks to silence or delegitimize dissent or the independent press. This is the first step towards tyranny.
This is also why the founders created a system with careful checks and balances. The founders were careful to balance power between the states and the federal government, and also to split the federal government between three different branches that are meant to keep each other in check. When we see our politicians ignoring or circumventing rules for personal benefit or political gain, we need to hold them accountable.
Justice For All
We believe in Justice for All and that All People are created equal. We do not have a nobility class in the United States. However, the powerful have continued to consolidate power, and the wealthy have continued to expand their share of the pie.
We need to protect the rights of the poor, the powerless, and the unpopular. We must not allow the privileged to put their thumb on the scales of justice. We must ensure the system is not rigged for the wealthy and powerful.
The United States is almost entirely a nation of immigrants. Wave after wave of immigrants have come to America to make a new life. And we have been enriched by their struggles, their labor, their art, their culture. This diversity of perspective helps gives rise to American inventiveness. And our shared culture of starting fresh helps give rise to our drive, our hope, our perseverance, and our fierce independence. Simply put, our diversity is one of our greatest strengths and has helped to make us the greatest nation on this Earth.
Living By Our Principles
The next time you say the pledge of allegiance, look past the flag and think about these core things that have made America the great nation that it is today. Speak your allegiance to them.
And as you listen to the news, forget the fear, the noise, the diversions. Think about our principles and what has really made America Great. Forget the politicians, the personalities, the talking heads shouting on the radio and the television. Think about whether we are strengthening the principles to which you are pledging your allegiance or betraying them. Then follow your heart.
* I recognize that “all men” is an anachronism, and the treatment of women and minorities in the United States throughout much of our history has been shameful. I think we must acknowledge this to mean “all people” and act accordingly.
** This quote is a little out of historical context (npr article). I don’t care, I fully agree with the meaning applied here whether it was the intent or not.