For anyone even remotely involved in social media the phenomenon of the popular meme and the viral post is nothing new. Pictures of angry cats, Sean Bean, and Patrick Stewart offer people a near continuous diet of diatribes and statements meant to entertain, inform, and express a view. Although hardly noteworthy, these memes are largely flashes in the cyber pan, streaking across a person’s screen, before dying a quick death by being buried in an ever accumulating avalanche of posts, tweets, and hashtags.
Yet, occasionally there are certain concepts that seem to take hold, spreading throughout the cyber world like a virtual beach ball kept afloat by continuous shares and repostings. One particular sentiment, especially popular during the more patriotically centered holidays, is the decrying of America’s loss of pride, tradition, and honor by not having the Pledge of Allegiance recited more frequently and by more people in the United States.
As one such popular sentiment, shared typically by conservative sites, goes—“We no longer do this for… fear… of Offending Someone!!! Let’s see how many Americans will re-post this. Would be even better if we saw heads bowed & hands folding together!!!!!” This is then typically accompanied by a picture of dutiful school children staring intently at a U.S. flag, mid sentence in a loyalty oath to a nation-state.
Another example, all the more convincing because of the persuasive use of capitalized letters, states— “I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND TO THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, INDIVISIBLE, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL! MY GENERATION GREW UP RECITING THIS EVERY MORNING IN SCHOOL WITH MY HAND ON MY HEART. THEY NO LONGER DO THAT FOR FEAR OF OFFENDING SOMEONE. LET’S SEE HOW MANY AMERICANS WILL RE-POST.”
At work in these statements are multiple meanings, all of which communicate much deeper problems than pictures of angry cats, Sean Bean, or Patrick Stewart could ever offer. The first is that at one time America, and as a result Americans, were much more patriotic, that they loved America much more and were willing to communicate that love through swearing their allegiance to a flag. This in and of itself is nothing more than a commentary on possible changes in popular nationalist attitudes but what is particularly striking is the charge of why Americans no longer pledge their allegiance. “They no longer do that for fear of offending someone.” Who that someone may be is never fully explained, but the reader is left with the impression that they are unpatriotic, delinquent, and most likely have a different value system than the “true” Americans.
This, of course, ignores the reality that the American Pledge of Allegiance is spoken quite regularly by Americans. In many states, schools daily have a reciting of the Pledge, and in some cases students are forced or heavily coerced to partake in the ritual. Then there are the sporting events, public meetings, and other functions that make regular use of the Pledge of Allegiance. All of these points heavily suggests the Pledge is a practice very much alive and well in American cultural life.
Yet social-conservatism, like many political movements, does well when there is a perceived threat to the group. Therefore enemies are identified, real or imaginary will do, that seek to destroy the traditions “we” have honored as a collective people. Besides being empirically inaccurate, however, the argument for the Pledge ignores another context typically forgotten by American conservatives, namely historical analysis.
For many the familiar citation of adding “under God” to the Pledge in 1954 is a common point to return to, but there is much more to the history of the Pledge of Allegiance than merely noting when the god of Abraham was drafted by Uncle Sam to somehow help defeat the godless Russian communists.
Specifically this concerns the author of the original Pledge of Allegiance and the original salute that was utilized by Americans to show reverence to a national symbol. The author, for those who don’t know, was a man by the name of Francis Bellamy, a Socialist and writer. Hired by the Youth’s Companion (a children’s magazine) Bellamy and one of the other employees became deeply involved in the “schoolhouse flag movement” which sought to distribute flags to every school in the United States. The eventual Pledge has undergone changes throughout the years but one of the most striking is the change that occurred in the method of popularly saluting the flag.
As the Youth’s Companion noted in 1892, the proper etiquette for saluting the flag was as follows—
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
For those who have difficulty visualizing this photos have survived capturing what would eventually become known as the “Bellamy Salute.”
The pictures have the ability to elicit shock by viewers the first time they see them. There, in all its candidness, are American school children engage in what appears to be a “Hitler salute” to the American flag. “How can this be?” people ask. “Why would Americans, especially from the supposed glory days, be doing such a thing?”
The answer is not particularly complex, unless one’s historical understanding is informed solely via Facebook memes.
Far from being a revelation that Americans were sympathetic to Nazi Germany, or fascism, or Hitler all it shows is a historic oddity that two seemingly different nation-states would prescribe the same method of swearing nationalist allegiances. There are some who argue that the similarities arise from Bellamy and later the fascists of Europe modeling their salutes off of a variance of the “Roman salute” but this far from conclusive.
What we can say with greater certainty, however, is that when social-conservatives decry the fabricated forgetting of the practice of pledging allegiance they are not fully aware of the entire history of the practice. Therefore, we in the present are confronted with a bizarre case of having friends and family insist that we engage in a practice that honors our history without actually being aware of that history (the Bellamy Salute was eventually “retired” in WWII, for obvious reasons, in favor of the hand-over-heart practice).
We are also confronted with another troubling standard, which is that a significant amount of people believe having children mindlessly repeating a loyalty oath is somehow reflective of a people who value freedom, liberty, and independence. Is the state merely a guardian of Constitutional principles, or is it something to be venerated and quasi-worshiped? There is technically no “right” answer to this, instead it is a question of opinion. One which the people of Europe during WWII answered with an alarming cost.
It should be stressed that engaging in the Pledge is not even a remote suggestion that the U.S. will slip into a Nazi-like state. To argue such an opinion would be as ludicrous as claiming the Pledge, Christmas, and Christians are under assault. But it does mean that far too often the calls to “honor our history” are actually an emotionally charged appeal to accept a particular political philosophy. Removed from actual historical analysis these arguments are largely ignorant of the history they claim to sustain and only thinly aware of some of the more alarming conclusions their jingoistic views could be morphed into.
Failing to learn a particular piece of history does not automatically ensure its repetition, but it does mean that people run a higher risk of being indoctrinated into a political viewpoint when certain arguments are made. Nostalgia, personified, is little more than a disorderly drunk, rambling about a time that never really existed. As Americans continue to pledge their allegiance to a flag, hand over heart, they perhaps would do well to realize that by the simple act of extending that arm, palm downwards, they would be engaged in an alarming practice, not foreign to American history. They would not be Nazis, no more than UPS drivers are for wearing brown shirts, but perhaps the visualization would stir some thought as to why they feel obliged to take part in the repeating of a loyalty oath to one particular nation-state.