11 September 2016

I Pledged Allegiance to My Conscience

Much has been made recently of athletes like Colin Kaepernick electing to kneel silently during performances of the national anthem. I haven't talked about socio-political issues much in this blog for awhile, but this particular matter continues to kick around in my noggin.

See, when I was an adolescent, I became disillusioned with and cynical about America. It wasn't hard to become that way. The more I learned about the truth of our society, the more disgusted I became by the pageantry that directs us all to look at flags and proclaim ourselves the greatest people God ever created. And I was a straight, white, cisgender, natural born citizen in a Kentucky suburb. If I was that appalled, granted all those social privileges, surely the people whose daily lives were spent fighting those battles were way angrier than I was. After all, for me it was an abstract, ideological war of choice. I could have just shrugged it off, contented myself that "them's the breaks", and gone on patting myself on the back for being a grateful, blessed American.

I couldn't, though. My conscience had a hard time of it. Part of it, surely, was that I was very much an outsider being picked on frequently. I may not have known the experiences of the hypothetical Others, but I knew firsthand who their tormentors were. The arrogant, snotty white kids who so cheerfully and sadistically constructed and enforced their hierarchy with themselves at the top and me at the bottom put anyone they didn't approve of at the bottom. Some of those arrogant snots were teacher's kids, who did as they pleased with impunity. It didn't take me long to recognize that they were carrying out an extension of the values that my teachers were instilling in them at home. I was being taught to be subservient; they were being encouraged to indulge themselves.

Somewhere along the way in middle school, I just had enough of the pageantry. One morning, when we were directed to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, I stayed seated.

It wasn't because I hated America. It wasn't that I even saw myself in an adversarial relationship with my country. It was simply that the America I was seeing and learning about had fallen unacceptably short of the values my America proclaimed to hold dear. I saw myself as trying to keep America honest in my own little way, one 1st period class at a time. I never gave any monologue about all this. Most kids didn't even notice or care.

My teacher was aware. I knew he saw me remain seated, morning after morning. We talked some here and there throughout that school year, about things like my views on society. He never addressed my not standing for the Pledge, though. Not once. Never asked me what I thought I was doing, never lectured me about insulting the honored dead, never threatened to have me expelled if I didn't straighten out right then and there.

Maybe he never said anything to me about it because he figured it wasn't worth the hassle. I like to think, though, that he left me alone because even if he didn't agree with me, that he respected not just my constitutional right to free speech, but that he respected me enough as a human being -- yes, even an adolescent pupil of his -- to have given such a matter serious consideration. I wasn't being rebellious for the sake of showing off.

Remember, Dear Reader, this was the early 90's. We didn't scrutinize how lavishly each of us participated in patriotic pageantry. None of my peers at the time were made to feel conscious enough about such things that they took notice of my silent protest. Today's kids have grown up in a world where members of Congress were once so petty they had the cafeteria use the term "freedom fries" because France had the temerity to not throw in with us when we invaded Iraq. In those days, though, average adolescent kids were largely oblivious to details like how patriotic one demonstrated oneself to be. There's no clearer evidence I can offer of how trivial this was at the time than that my classmates, who harassed me mercilessly, didn't even register this as something to use against me.

do admire the ideals that my country has professed ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I am grateful to enjoy the benefits of a society that has been built by the hard work, sacrifice, and beliefs of those who have gone before me. I do respect those who have committed themselves to the protection of those ideals and of us all. If the Pledge asked instead for me to stand and proclaim my admiration, gratitude, and respect, I'd have done it. Ultimately, though, it was precisely because of that admiration, gratitude, and respect that I didn't.

Was I inelegant? Clumsy? Arrogant? Naive? Sometimes I look back and I think I was. Sometimes I look back and I think I was just ahead of my time, which is particularly distressing because I didn't even consider it then, but in addition to being white, straight, cisgender, and all that, I enjoyed one more privilege: I lived in a time when making that kind of a statement wasn't a national outrage. I can think of few things sadder than the realization that the America that disappointed me so much I protested against her was actually the more open-minded and accepting America.