Living out what we pledge

A news story this week blew the whistle on a country that punishes children who refuse to stand and swear loyalty to its flag. It's not China, or any part of the old Soviet Empire. It's not any of those smaller countries run by pathetic little men whose military medals flash in the light as they strut around like banty roosters. We're talking closer to home. And while this detail might sound like overwritten fiction, it's a fact that the final phrase of the loyalty oath some children are forced to recite is "with liberty and justice for all."

As it convened Monday for its annual session, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that one of the appeals it wouldn't review is the case of Cameron Frazier, who in 2005 was a high school junior in Florida. Cameron walked into math class and told his teacher he wouldn't stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, touching off a lesson in real-life civics rather than math.

"You clearly have no respect," the teacher told Cameron in front of his classmates. "You are so ungrateful and so un-American. Do you know what's out there fighting our war? That flag you refuse to show respect to."

Cameron had given this some advanced thought. "No," he said. "Our soldiers are out fighting a war. The flag is an inanimate piece of cloth that doesn't move and surely can't hold a gun." That earned Cameron a one-way trip to the principal's office. He launched a case that persuaded a federal judge to strike down a Florida law that requires public-school students to stand and repeat the pledge, unless a parent asks for a waiver in writing. But an appeals-court panel reversed that decision, upholding the Florida law on grounds that parents, not their school-age children, are entitled to First Amendment rights. And with the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the case, that's currently the law of the land.

With other huge public issues squarely in our face right now, is this story important? Or is it just the latest excuse for card-carrying ACLU members like me to complain? After all, we're only talking about kids here, whose parents are still free to opt them out of the pledge. And the punishment here wasn't exactly brutal; from his comments in the article, Cameron seems sturdy enough to weather a dressing-down in front of his friends and a classroom ejection without lifelong wounds. And we're not exactly on the verge of packing people off in cattle cars to some North Dakota gulag for refusing to recite the pledge.

But don't you find this embarrassing? We listen to our leaders of whichever party lecture the rest of the world about the moral superiority of democracy and human rights. The lecture's tone might change when we change presidents, but the message doesn't. But how credible, and how confident, is a nation that enforces those values by humiliating children who don't want to stand up and pledge their loyalty to, as Cameron saw it, "an inanimate piece of cloth"? That's worth some thought from those who still wonder why much of the world doesn't honor the United States.

If you hold a reverence for the American flag that makes all these questions sound disrespectful or demeaning, I hope you'll consider them in a different light — perhaps a more practical light. Do you think this kind of coercion, however slight, strengthens or weakens us in the world's eyes? And what lesson would Cameron's classmates more likely take away from this episode: that their society lives out the pledge's noble words, or that liberty is mostly about the right to say what the people in charge want you to say? If your goal here is to inspire genuine, lasting patriotism in children, is that accomplished by making them chant a series of ritualized words on cue? Stalin thought so. So did Mao and Idi Amin and Kim Jong-Il. For the most part it didn't work out well.

A nation committed to the tenets of liberty and freedom that we praise with words would take another approach. Cameron's teacher could have drawn him out on his beliefs and helped the rest of the class react to them (or arranged for that to happen in social studies class). What might have followed was a debate with the kind of juice that impacts kids more than dusty tales from their textbooks, an exercise to sharpen critical thinking and articulation skills. What might have followed was education. At the end of the hour the teacher could have said "The conversation we just had would have been suppressed in many countries of the world. Now I'm going to voice my appreciation with the Pledge of Allegiance. Who wants to join me?"

And whoever did would mean it.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

Share This Story