Phil Gulley: A Pledge to Bullies

We will not be fooled by meanness in the guise of patriotism.
There’s a man in my town I’ve known since we were in Mrs. Mann’s first-grade class together. He spent his youth targeting the weaker children at the edge of the herd, the lion singling out the smallest zebra, sniffing out vulnerability, then moving in for the kill. I left town shortly after high school, then returned 20 years later to find him still here, no longer knocking books out of arms or twisting ears, but mugging people electronically, appointing himself the judge of our patriotism, propping up Old Glory on Facebook, pecking out his attacks in capital letters, exclamation points, and run-on sentences. This man who, in all the years I’ve known him, never devoted himself to serious thought or earnest effort, believes his rants are superior to facts and reason. Why are the persons who tout freedom the loudest often the first to deny it to others?
When Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers football player, recently remained seated during the national anthem to protest the mistreatment of black people, our town bully said it was an insult to the soldiers who had fought for our freedoms. It didn’t occur to him that Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem was one of those. I phoned my son, who is in the Army, to see if he was offended by Kaepernick’s protest. Apparently, he doesn’t love freedom, because he said Kaepernick was perfectly free to sit or stand or lie down on the 50-yard line. It didn’t matter to him.
Our local bully seems uninterested in remedying the injustice Kaepernick opposes. Instead, he condemns the quarterback for protesting the troubling gap between what America is and ought to be. Kaepernick is the doctor telling the country something is amiss, but instead of tackling the illness, the man in my town has gone after the physician.
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about patriotism, what it means to love one’s country, and the various forms that love might take. At our local schools, the Pledge of Allegiance is piped in each morning over the intercom. The kids stand, face the flag, place their hands over their hearts, and recite it. If the aim of this exercise is to promote citizenship, maybe the children should recite the Constitution instead. That way, they’ll be less likely to fall prey to demagogues when they’re old enough to vote. Besides, there’s no guarantee our public pledges are any more enduring or sincere than our private ones. If they were, no one would ever forsake the wedding vows they publicly swore to uphold.
Do the people who require the pledge know something about our kids the rest of us do not? Are they privy to some secret rebellion or whispered plot only a daily proclamation of loyalty will prevent? Is our children’s love of country so fickle it must be strengthened by creeds and tests? A Native American girl in California recently was docked a grade when she refused to pledge allegiance to the country that had committed genocide against her ancestors. The teacher accused her of not understanding what it meant to be a citizen, though I suspect that young lady thought a great deal about citizenship and decided when America lives up to its ideals of justice and equality, she’ll stand, but not until then.
At one time, our love for America was measured by service and self-sacrifice. Today, it’s gauged by our public expressions of loyalty and the boastful elevation of our country above all others. We’re expected to root for the home team, no matter what. It’s a thoughtless devotion, determined by decibels, rather than one’s resolve to better our nation.
I revere the freely offered tribute, recited in moments of deep appreciation or collective sorrow. But I detest required praise, as if my love of country is so suspect I must pledge it anew each day. My church doesn’t demand my daily recitation of faithfulness, nor does my wife, so why should my country? Why should anyone in a free nation be condemned for not bending a knee or bowing their head?
This past fall, a high school student in Danville declined to stand and repeat the pledge. When word got out, as it quickly did, the self-appointed guardians of God and country took to Facebook to fight this peril. “He should be thrown out of school and stripped of his citizenship!” one thundered. “Send him to Russia!” said another. Several pointed out that their fathers would have beaten them if they had done the same thing, and seemed wistfully proud of that, as if they wished the old man were still around to clobber them. The young man responded, explaining why he had remained seated and why he would continue to. It was clear he had given the matter more thought than his detractors, whose responses were as foolish as they were predictable. I was proud my community had produced a young person with the courage to protest the cruelty the rest of us have so casually accepted.
Is America now so weak, so delicate, she cannot bear the slightest criticism? After some 240 years, is she so feeble she must be sheltered from the slightest accusation? She has endured numerous wars, depressions, scandals, racism, famine, and plagues, but will now be destroyed by a football player in California or a high school kid in Indiana who dares to insist we live up to the high standards of our Constitution?
I suspect our town bully doesn’t love our nation nearly as much as he loves the opportunity to diminish others, all under the guise of patriotism. What a joy it must be to condemn people while simultaneously appearing so virtuous and true, so all-American. This man who has never invested himself in our town or country nevertheless is happy to call our outgoing president, a Harvard Law School graduate, an idiot and a traitor. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to live in a place where a man wasn’t free to call our president anything he wishes. But I don’t want to spend time with such a man, nor do I want either of my sons to become one.
What I found most despicable and troubling when that bully extraordinaire Donald Trump was running for president was his habit of describing such thinking as patriotic. He was Making America Great Again, which of course he wasn’t, except in the minds of his deluded disciples, who saw in him a promise and potential I never noticed. I saw a man hunched over his computer, tweeting away, knocking down others to raise himself up.