Altitude Sickness, Column

Altitude Sickness: principled allegiances

Today’s run was wet. Really wet. I went on vacation recently and took about seven days off from training, so am really not feeling anything about a Spartan race, but part of me wants to see what I can do starting from basically nothing.
Realistically though, I am not starting from nothing, I am starting from a box where I can take two weeks off from exercising and still muscle out a Beast race without much trouble. I wouldn’t do it fast, nor would I really enjoy it, but I could do it.
Today’s run though, a short jaunt up the Sherburne trail, was wet. Really wet. The kind of wet where your family’s shoes get squishy in sympathy. It was also the perfect temperature, where I was fully dripping with water, but I was warm on the inside and cool on the skin. It was really delightful. I even managed to keep my sneakers dry for three of the four miles … but then they got wet. Really wet. The kind of wet where you stop avoiding the puddles and start purposefully hitting them because your feet aren’t going to get wetter, but the puddles cool them off.
As I write this, I am the kind of clean that only comes from being soaked by rain … the kind of clean that only comes from the sky, and I am loath to shower, because this special warm/cool feeling will dissolve, and I will feel normal again. The shower will wash away the special.
Last Saturday night, as part of my vacation, I went to a fireworks festival in Jaffrey, N.H. It was an interesting event, $60 to get a car in (my friend, her 7-year-old son and I parked elsewhere and walked in), and the sausages were 50 cents more expensive than at Fenway. We got a spot on the hill by the runway (the whole thing was at an airfield) and waited for the show to start. It was set to music (with a sound track) and started with an orgiastic display of flags, the pledge of allegiance being recited about 30 different times by 30 different children in the soundtrack, and a highly bastardized version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
The narrator of the soundtrack engaged in a long guilt trip about who says the pledge and who doesn’t, and how the right not to say the pledge was earned by the blood of those willing to say the pledge, so be proud and shout it out. Of course her son, the son of a veteran (his mother), was gobbling this all up into a froth of jingoistic fervor. I put my hand over my heart, gritted my teeth and bore it, waiting for them to play the theme song to “America–World Police” (“Amuuuuricuh…&*#k Yeah!).
Before the truly spectacular fireworks display really got going, the display of nationalism was so rife, so blatant, that I wondered if they had some terrorists hidden off to the side that they were going to shoot in the head for a finale.
Surprisingly, in the middle of the show, they had three protest songs in a row, Mellencamp’s ironic “Little Pink Houses,” CCR’s obvious “It Ain’t Me,” and the most ironic of choices, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” (Seriously? Silence? With fireworks in the background?). “The words of the prophets are [indeed] written on the subway walls.” I sat and watched people “pray to the neon god they’d made”. …
Afterward, I was talking to my friend, the veteran, about some of the things that bothered me about this event (seriously, it was like having a fireworks display inside my head, an hour of really loud music, and “bombs bursting in air”).
Aside from the basic fact that fireworks are an ancient celebration of the capacity of Chinese warlords to decimate their opponents (generally peasants armed with farm implements) with sophisticated artillery, there is the basic misunderstanding of what the pledge and the national anthem actually are.
The “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t about a flag. It’s about a soldier in the War of 1812, battered, bloody, cold and scared, trying to find out if his side is still in the fight. If the flag was still up, they were still in the fight. If the Union Jack was flying, all was lost, and he was a prisoner of war. A soldier waking up in the morning, exhausted from sleeping in mud, wondering if they had won the battle or lost. “Does that star spangled banner yet wave?” Think about it. People need to remember where this comes from.
The pledge of allegiance was written by a man named Francis Bellamy, a socialist Baptist preacher who wrote for a magazine funded by flag sales. The pledge of allegiance was written and publicized because a flag in every classroom would ensure the success of the man who wrote it.
The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge on Flag Day in 1954 by the Eisenhower administration (under protest—President Eisenhower, a Presbyterian, believed firmly in the separation of church and state) as a concession to the John Birch Society, because people believed that it would be a litmus test for flushing out “Godless communists” (as if communist spies would not be willing to lie about being atheists).
What adding “under God” to the pledge did was single out Americans who, because they had personal integrity regarding their constitutionally protected beliefs, were either unwilling to lie about believing in the same god as the John Birch Society, or unwilling to have their children forcefully religiously indoctrinated in a state institution like a school.
I was raised a Quaker by atheist hippies who worked for a space program/munitions contractor/manufacturer. Swimming around in this primordial stew of wild contradiction was my parents’ firm love of country, and their absolute unwillingness to have me participate in a state-sponsored ritualized religious indoctrination.
When, at the age of five, I asked my mother why she didn’t want me saying the pledge (I sat while the other students stood), my mother said (as best I can remember it): “Pledging allegiance to a flag, or a country, or a leader, can lead to people following orders without thinking. If you are going to pledge allegiance to something, pledge allegiance to an idea or a principle.” The conversation went on to talk about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as understood by a five-year-old.
The Constitution, a document written by wealthy landowners to give other wealthy landowners the right to vote (don’t forget that the common white man didn’t have the right to vote for quite a while) and determine the future of North American non-landowners, is actually a pretty solid document that eventually led to non-landowning Caucasians, women, and African descended Americans the right to vote (after a great deal of struggle). I can, for the most part, get behind the Constitution (I do not, however, believe it to be a sacred document like many in this country. Based on the writings of the founders, I think that many of them would be surprised at the deification of the document and the founders).
The founders (nearly all of them) were Deists. Deism is the belief in an absent creator, a creator that sets the clock moving, and then leaves the clock’s inhabitants to do with the clock what they will. Most of the founders held nothing sacred but self-determination (or more clearly, the self-determination of wealthy landowners).
When I told my friend about the national anthem, she said, “That makes sense.” When I told her about the pledge, she was flabbergasted, and kind of angry. I said, “No one told you that in the Army?” “No” she replied. “Do you think there is a reason for that?” I asked. She was silent for a while. “Yes, I do,” she eventually responded. We didn’t discuss it any further.
As a soldier, it was her job to follow every order she was given. As non-military citizens, it is our job, our sacred duty, to question every single thing that our representatives (frightfully few of whom have family members in the military) propose to do with the people who are duty bound to follow their orders. The bond of trust between soldier and leader is sacred, and therefore, rationalizations for war must be tested and analyzed at every single step, or we wind up with soldiers being used to fight wars for corporate profits.
We, each of us, are the culmination of 2,000,000,000 or so years of genetic victory. Every step of that period of time involved our genetic predecessors defeating other failed genetic lines for resources upon which survival depended. We are all descended from soldiers. All of us have at least one ancestor who murdered for food. All of us have at least one ancestor who oppressed a group of people, and all of us have many ancestors who were oppressed. That is if you go back far enough.
It is only through documents like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that we have progressed to where we are as humans, and we have a lot of work left to do. We have a lot of thinking left to do. Pledging allegiance to a flag (as opposed to, for instance, a set of principles) will not help us accomplish these things. Pledges of allegiance lead to exactly that, unthinking allegiance. Fanaticism. Nationalism. The slippery slope there is unjust war, murder, and genocide.
The fact is, that despite our best intentions, this country has had liberty and justice for the wealthy, the white, and the male, in that order. Justice is beginning to trickle down to the female and the non-white. It is working, but it only works if we decide to leave our ancestry of oppression, rape, murder, and war behind.
I love my country. I love the flag. That flag encompasses an honest evaluation of every good and bad thing ever done in its name. Ever. Humans are evolving. Americans are evolving. Let’s keep that going. Let’s think. Let’s be principled about that with which we ally ourselves.

One comment on “Altitude Sickness: principled allegiances

  1. “The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge on Flag Day in 1954 by the Eisenhower administration (under protest—President Eisenhower, a Presbyterian, believed firmly in the separation of church and state)”

    I disagree — first, Eisenhower could have (and should have) vetoed it.

    Second, he released this official statement about it:
    FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.

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