Our Spanish II teacher, a woman we all knew was not to be messed with, ordered us into our daily ritual of citing the Pledge of Allegiance. This must have been our first class together now that I think about it, because it was on this day a moment of tension ensued. We stood, cited the pledge, in spanish I believe, and then sat, unthinkingly, as we always do. One of us, however, didn’t. The teacher addressed her at her seat towards the back of the room.
“Ms. Campbell. Why aren’t you standing for the pledge?” she pointedly asked.
In a response with no degree of excess, she replied, “It is against my beliefs.”
To be honest, I don’t remember my fellow student’s name, but I can tell you she wore skirts, had long hair braided down to her waist, and couldn’t have been anything else but Penecostal. She didn’t often speak to anyone and we didn’t often speak to her, keeping the divide between our cultures firmly established. I remember a certain air of superiority and judgement about her, that may have been true or may have just been my perception of religious moralism at the time.
The teacher pushed back. “And what exactly are your beliefs?”, more a dare than a questioning.
“We give obedience to our god, not our country.” she replied with no more convincing, as if this had all been scripted before.
The teacher could say nothing, though she could also not hide the tension of her authority being undermined. The rest of the class sat in the tension, waiting for an escalation by the teacher or some sort of relief to this interruption. The silence hurt. The teacher relented, I think, for the moment, maybe saying something about addressing this at another time, and then went about the business of pulling us through the struggles of a foreign language.
I remember sitting with that moment, feeling a sort of defensiveness, a who-does-this-girl-think-she-is kind of defensiveness, but also a camaraderie. In the instinctual battlefield of student versus teacher, we found our commonalities in odd places, so when this fellow student was able to override teacher authority and demand, with her physical body even, by citing a rational, untouchable ideology (even if it was based on religion) I couldn’t but help feel a sense of jealousy and even affection towards this individual. I think, even back then, I felt this resistance to external ideology, conformity, and groupthink, but lacked the intellectual, rational basis to explain it.
Along the way of personal development, into my college years and onward, I did begin to find that intellectual, personal, ideological, individualist basis for my feelings, to reject nationalism at its foundation, to reject groupthink, to be very very skeptical of authority. I was influenced by the screaming passions of punk bands and their introspective, politicized lyrics. I read into the words of Howard Zinn, Thoreau, and all the authors that broke through the abstract constructs of the human animal, both it’s mist of ideologies and it’s concrete borders. More and more I escaped the binds of the borders drawn by others, rejected the associations of nationalism, of having no other agency than the fortune of being born within pre-drawn boundaries. The very idea of drawing historical, immediate, and future cultural divisions between individuals became not only rationally and intellectually absurd, but downright bigoted and tragically problematic for the push towards freedom and cooperation.
These ideas of rejecting association to god or country or culture were, at this time, primarily intellectual. I had really not had my resolve tested as my fellow student did in facing the demanded Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish class. In a culture of demanded subservience, of a self-stated “greatest country on earth”, in the fervor of a continuously polarized world, that time would obviously come.
I told my girlfriend (at the time), “Just so you know, I don’t stand for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, or any of that stuff.”
We were going to a public 4th of July celebration, attended by thousands and thousands, watching the symphony go through a program of compositions related to history and nationalism. I was looking forward to the music, but not the patriotism and nationalistic fervor that defines our culture. I expected some degree of tension should I not stand, not fall in line, not “pledge my allegiance”, and didn’t fear it, but also didn’t want to cause tension for my girlfriend and her family with whom I would be attending.
I reaffirmed my resolve. “Just so you know, I don’t stand for any of that stuff. I don’t want to create any problems, but I just don’t. I’m just letting you know ahead of time.”
The symphony played really beautiful music and I enjoyed it deeply, but the brass and percussion would soon give way to celebrations of each branch of the military. As the conductor called out an individual force, everyone who had served in that branch would stand and be applauded deeply, followed by the next, and then the next, until after all four services were recognized, the national anthem was played and everyone was to stand and sing. The thousands and thousands, in unison, without exception, sang words of pride, intertwined with words of war, marked by unthinking obedience, and soaked in christian righteousness.
I didn’t stand. Respectfully, I sat, enjoyed the music, clapped for the orchestra, and said no more.
An older man in front of me, who had stood as an ex-army serviceman, who had leaned over to his wife after the conductor pointed out that the writer of the national anthem was a frenchman and said “Pshh…figures.”, and who had noticed that I was not standing for servicemen or the anthem, turned, while everyone sat back down, faced me, also seated, put his hands on his hips, stared me in the eye, and shook his head back in forth in absolute disgust. Saying nothing, he turned and sat. Unable to let that slide, I immediately leaned forward, got as close as I could to whisper and not make a scene, and said,
“Sir, if this is truly a free country, then it follows that we are all able to hold our opinions and be free to express them in any way we see fit.”
He turned to me, paused, and stated, “Yeah? Well, I FOUGHT for this country, so go SIT DOWN.”, as if to imply that his decision to fight in a war trumped a completely simple, basic argument of individualism and freedom of expression. To be honest, I expected nothing more. I assumed this sort of tension would likely happen, even through the most simplistic act, admittedly during a public expression of ultimate nationalism and patriotism. Maybe I was rolling the dice, holding a populace that expresses the idea of ultimate freedom to the test. But I also assumed they would fail, despite wanting no confrontation. More so, beyond this proof of assumption, I was affected by the aggregate nationalism, by the thousands of individuals standing in unison, reciting the national anthem, in a time of global tension and countries plotting war against each other. It wasn’t that I saw blood thirsty individuals, but rather a mass of well-intentioned people coming together to reaffirm the rightness of their position, of their place in the world, of their associations by least common denominator, by the chance occurrence of being born within pre-established boundaries. What I ultimately saw, were the good germans. I saw the premise for authority to enact it’s own interests, no matter how nefarious, no matter how short-sighted, no matter how violent, with the well-intentioned, but relatively unthinking subservience of it’s citizens, who can’t see to even question the validity of their nationalist declarations, of their pledges and allegiances, of where their pledges and allegiances might lead. To be honest, I saw how the Nazis were able to bring a populace to put their neighbors into ovens. I saw how Hutus were able to slaughter Tutsis. I saw how aggregate obedience creates a culture where dissent and disagreement is criminal and how even the citizens are brought to keep each other in check. I don’t know if I’d say I was scared…but I was truly affected.
Never have I felt the need or rationalized the argument for nationalism, for patriotism, and all it’s potential violence, all it’s immediate divisions. I stand on the line at running races and wait for the ritual of the national anthem, knowing this is an unquestioned part of any public proceedings. At its worst, it’s followed by a prayer, most insultingly “in jesus’ name”. I play my own role, quietly walking away from the line and giving everyone their space. Or if the option to walk away is not available, I kneel down, head bent, silently. I’ve never done this for show, as an act of conscious protest, but to simply live my values, to not continue unthinking patriotism, to not give false allegiance to borders and nations and ideologies. I do this in the same way I feel no need to bow my head to a god that doesn’t exist during prayer. I do this in the same way I avoid all other expected rituals to ideologies I do not harbor.
Kaepernick. Obviously, I’m writing all this in response to this current event. I stand with Kaepernick, or kneel, or whatever, almost fully. Almost. I’m adding one more voice to his act and his protest because in this cultural moment, the best leverage we have is turning up the volume on those of us that dissent, that don’t give obedience, that don’t follow ritual, that actually consider the words of what is being sung and said instead of just appeasing each other with our obedience. Personally, I find it laughable that people are LOSING THEIR MINDS because an individual dares act his conscience, that an individual dares express the freedom that all the patriots and nationalists hold to the utmost regard. WE’RE THE GREATEST, MOST FREE COUNTRY ON EARTH! IF YOU DISAGREE, YOU ARE NOT FREE TO SAY IT! It’s truly, unreservedly laughable…if it wasn’t so frightening. It is this reaffirmation of nationalist identity, of self-righteous fervor, of unquestioning that leads to the most horrendous atrocities, that leads citizens to act unthinkingly, that leads to armies and red scares and black lists and good germans.
But still, people are losing their minds that Kaepernick, a publicly visible individual, a celebrity hero to some, is essentially “biting the hand that feeds.” They are losing their minds because he is not only expressing his resistance to groupthink and subservience, but is acting on it. He is physically not falling in line, which is the ultimate rejection of the processes of authority. Free speech is one thing. Free action is something entirely different.
But again, to Kaepernick, and my “almost” full support of his action. The problem with Kaepernick’s action, and I think another reason why people feel so offended by it, is that he is essentially “using” the national anthem as a form of protest. His act of not standing and respecting the national anthem is not to protest the national anthem itself, but to bring attention to the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States. His act is capitalizing on this important moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, of pointing to the hypocrisy of the United States and the expressions of some it’s most coveted rituals, in order to change the treatment of people of color for the better. This should, of course, be supported without reservation. If the expression “liberty and justice for all” isn’t being carried out through the institutions that claim “liberty and justice for all”, then there is no need to continue reciting these words, or paying lip service to the ritual. The problem arises, however, in that the interpretation of the national anthem by individuals, who stake their own claim to it’s fundamental meaning. For some it’s about unthinking obedience. For others it’s a support of the military. For others it’s about the sentiment to make the country better. The problem, then, lies in the varied interpretations and offenses people feel on an individual basis. Kaepernick is using the national anthem to bring light to the issues facing people of color by his own interpretation of the poem’s statements as literal. He is saying that until the words are carried out to their most literal extent, we should question their usage.
Kaepernick is also black.
This means that people are going to freak the hell out because he’s also rejecting the comfort white people feel in the statements of a national anthem that supposedly includes freedom and justice for all. He is pointing out white hypocrisy. The problem, for me, in fully supporting his act, is that his protest of the verses and verbiage used are a singular protest. They are related primarily to liberty and justice for all people of color, it seems, which leads me to believe that if he feels his grievances have been resolved for people of color, would he then stand for the anthem again? What about liberty and justice for everyone based on sexual preference? On theological ideology? etc.? In part, my resistance to fully supporting Kaepernick is that his act isn’t a rejection of nationalism and patriotism at its foundation, but rather it is a singular issue protest that is making the conversation difficult, because the majority of his critics are probably unthinkingly responding to his rejection of the national anthem (and their personal associations and interpretations) instead of the issues regarding people of color.
On the other hand, no matter his individual intentions, I fully support this act of openly refusing to take part in the ritual of the national anthem, if only because it is a rejection of group think, nationalism, and all their tragic outcomes. Kaepernick, right now, is directly experiencing the emotional and psychological pressure that comes with stepping out of line, of thinking for oneself, of rejecting the status quo, of spitting in the face of authority, of taking an action for justice and against oppressive authorities and institutions, but being admonished by those not in power and not of institutions. He’s being told by the good germans to keep quiet, do what you’re told, or else you might end up on the train too. So even though he may end up standing for the anthem again, right now, he needs all the backing he can get.
For me and my friends, we don’t have the public exposure that a sports celebrity does, but I can tell you that we’ve been NOT standing for the pledge or the anthem all our skeptical, rational, thinking lives. We don’t stand for the anthem or pledge to anyone except ourselves, our loved ones and our self-created ideologies because we are individual, human animals at the core. We don’t live by abstract constructs of imaginary boundaries, by fabricated ideologies, by rule and guides not of our own making. We reject the national anthem and it’s ritual not just because we find it’s words hypocritical, but simply because it is a ritual, because it is an act of obedience, because it is an act of subservience, because it is part of a cultural aggregate defined by economies hell bent on growth, built on the backs of others, always trending towards war and conflict. We reject acts of nationalism because we reject nations, and gas chambers, and walls, and borders, and the willful obedience that makes them all possible.
We pledge allegiance to nothing and reject the anthems of nations because we know a world without them is not a vacuum of dignity and security, but quite the opposite. We know cultures comprised of free-thinking, rational, intellectual, and skeptical individuals are actually cultures of cooperation, justice and genuine freedom.