Every morning, millions of American school children stand up, put their right hand over their heart, get ready and begin the pledge of allegiance. This practice starts as early as kindergarten, when most are too young to grasp the concept of nationalism, and yet are expected to actively participate in it. Although the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students in public schools cannot be forced to say the pledge, teachers are still required to conduct the ceremony on a daily basis whether or not students choose to participate.
Looking past the creepiness inherent in mindless, monotone recitation, the pledge calls for students to believe in ideals that they are unable to critically consider for themselves. Although it is hard to argue that liberty and justice for all are in any way bad, one’s loyalties and political opinions should always be left up to the individual, rather than instilled by some authority. Such dictation flies in the face of the very liberty Americans hold so dear and contradicts the whole point of an education. We teach children to think critically and independently, but before any lesson begins, we practice blatant hypocrisy.
Yet, the problems run deeper. By promoting such a strong sense of nationalism, we foster a collective hubris that drives irresponsible policy with the goal of restoring and protecting our pride, rather than practically solving problems.
A group of fanatics fly a couple of planes into our buildings, and the subsequent nationalistic firestorm led to two unfunded wars considered unnecessary, especially in regards to Iraq. Would the argument for Saddam Hussein’s ousting — possible possession of weapons of mass destruction — have worked so easily if America were not already seeing red after the September 11 attacks? It would be difficult to argue that it played no role, or even a minor one.
I’m not claiming that the pledge of allegiance alone is responsible for the over-reaction that was Operation Iraqi Freedom, but rather that it contributes to the establishment of pride-in-country as a pillar of our society that must be defended at all costs, even to our own detriment.
Now is that to say all forms of nationalism are harmful? Yes, absolutely. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Vigilance by the people of any country to skeptically and critically evaluate the actions of their government, and to never support an action simply because it was our government that executed it. Nationalism fosters that very sense of blind commitment responsible for irresponsible, reactionary politics. The sentiment that ‘America is always right,’ even when we’re wrong, stems from this fervent patriotism, which Forbes ranked as number one amongst all peoples of the world. Our current place at the top of the geo-political food chain has led to a complacent support for all things American, even the irresponsible actions of our government. Is it OK to assassinate American citizens overseas simply because they are allied with an organization we have designated as a threat to us, as was the case in September of 2011 when the CIA killed via drone strike both Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son in Yemen? Our silence as a nation speaks for itself.
Loyalty to one’s country should be shown through action, through the constant evaluation and criticism of our leadership, not through blind support. A true patriot is one who is aware that their country is not their spouse and only supports endeavors that benefit the majority of its citizens, not simply its ego.
Jake Weber is a third-year literary journalism and philosophy double-major. He can be reached at email@example.com.