November 08, 2011

Pandering on the pledge

Just recently I wrote about how easy it is for people to gum things up by pandering to religion and patriotism. As if to support my point, Republicans state legislators in Michigan have introduced legislation that would require all public school children to recite the pledge of allegiance each day.

In 1942, West Virginia passed a law requiring that students salute the flag each day while reciting the pledge of allegiance which at that time did not end with the words 'under God'. The US Supreme Court ruled such actions unconstitutional in 1943, with Justice Robert Jackson writing in his majority opinion:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.


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Question - suppose we altered the pledge to remove god and references to the flag, something like:

"I pledge allegiance to United States of America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all."

or maybe some variant on the current oath of allegiance (wording here:

Would there be something objectionable to asking (not requiring) people to swear to a statement describing the ideal vision of the US? Is there any net benefit to the country to having everyone indoctrinated into a minimum baseline ideal of an ideal?

I'm torn. On the one hand, I never liked the pledge as a kid (which I said every day in school in the mid to late 1980s), partially because of the god reference and partially because I consider a flag to be an irrelevant symbol compared to, say, the constitution. On the other hand, shouldn't we have some baseline commonality that citizens are willing to swear to?

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on November 8, 2011 09:15 PM


The problem with even simply asking people to do this is that those who don't do so run the risk of being stigmatized, even if they agree with the sentiment but refuse to go along simply because don't like being pressured to conform.

Posted by Mano on November 8, 2011 10:42 PM

Mano -

That's a fair point. On the other hand, is there a place where someone might deserve to be stigmatized for not agreeing to a minimal baseline declaration support for their country?

After all, those who legally become citizens are asked to swear an oath. Why not hold those fortunate enough to be born citizens to some standard? The schools would probably not be the place to do it, on the other hand might there be some potential benefit to that kind of minimal indoctrination?

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on November 9, 2011 10:50 PM


I was trying to write something respectfully challenging your assumptions, specifically about what it means to legally encourage someone. I also wanted to talk about who gets to decide what's in this pledge and the logical contradictions of it all. But I can't because no matter how I start I just end up in the same place, which is:

"You want to publicly ostracize people who have a problem with reciting a rote pledge written by someone else? That's just fucked up."

So instead I'll just leave it there!

all the best,

Posted by Jared A on November 10, 2011 11:32 AM


My feeling is that the marginal benefits that might accrue from having people say these things is outweighed by the resentment and divisiveness that it is likely to cause, with people arguing interminably over what should be included in such a pledge.

Posted by Mano on November 10, 2011 11:53 AM

Mano -

You are undoubtedly correct that issues with deciding the wording would make this a non-starter. I'll leave the question of benefits to social scientists. I'm sure some sociologist must have done a study of 'citizenship levels of people who say the pledge of allegiance' or some such thing.

Jared -

I don't personally. However, a great many people [or at least politicians, which may not be the same thing] apparently would like to have the pledge (as it stands now) recited and would presumably ostracize those who wouldn't. So I'm curious if there'd be any way to make such a plan workable in a useful non-discriminatory manner. I suspect that you are correct and there is not.

That said, pretty much any organization I've ever belonged to has had some kind of statement of purpose that everyone in the group would have agreed with. At the root, the U.S. is nothing but a group of people. Isn't it a little weird that there isn't some baseline commonality that all citizens would be willing to swear to? I suspect that even a simple "I swear to uphold the Constitution" would not go over well. I wonder if that's just because the 'group' analogy doesn't hold for nations, or when the group gets too large. Or maybe it's just because most of us didn't choose to be in the group; from what I've seen those of us who got to choose to be citizens are pretty enthusiastic about the oath of allegiance.

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on November 11, 2011 09:09 AM


You raise a very interesting point. Yes, most organizations we join (workplace or social) do have some form of mission statement that we implicitly accept by joining. It is rare that people are asked to explicitly swear allegiance to it, though. I wonder how many people would be uncomfortable doing that.

For example, my university has a mission statement. By agreeing to work here, am I bound by it? The university recently adopted a new mission statement but there was no referendum on it. So are well all bound by it?

I think it is better to leave these things implicit. When you make them explicit, trouble usually follows. When I was in Sri Lanka, following the rise of the separatist movement, the government demanded that all government employees sign an oath saying they opposed separatism or they would lose their jobs. Even though I did not support separatism, I seethed with anger at having to sign this oath.

I know that you are not suggesting a compulsory oath, just a voluntary one, but I still see trouble and strife arising.

Posted by Mano on November 11, 2011 10:48 AM


I think I see what you're getting at now. I agree with your conclusion that we don't choose to be US citizens - we cannot choose to not belong to the society we constitute. Unlike other groups the only way to "quit" is really physical (expatriation). You are a member as long as you are there. This makes pledges more than meaningless.

I think that when people start pushing the pledge - especially politicians -- it isn't so much for the general positive effects it will have on society (though they may say this) but instead for personal benefit. It's sort of going back to the original problems with outward displays of patriotism as a shortcut to "goodness". Politicians wear their patriotism on their sleeve to get an edge against their opponent. Even if this doesn't start as the case, it will always trend towards such a system, because a)the "one upper" will have an edge and b) cost of one-upping is low because sincerity is difficult to detect.

In fact, I might go so far as to say this:

Any system that attaches positive benefit to token acts will always end up promoting insincere token acts over their sincere counterparts.

This has to do with the cost of being sincere vs. "cheating". It's reminiscent of evolutionary stable strategies.


Posted by Jared A on November 11, 2011 03:53 PM

Mano -

My employer also has a mission statement. As it happens, I have no problem with it. But if it changed to (for example) "we will do anything to make money no matter who it hurts" then I'd have to seriously look at getting another job. The problem, as Jared points out, is that I can probably find another job without too much hassle. The only effective way to quit being American is to emigrate.

Jared -

I think your summary is quite correct. The only question is whether that kind of indoctrination has non-token positive effects. Absent some kind of study to say otherwise, I'm inclined to think it does not - which leads to the question of why we have a pledge in the first place.

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on November 11, 2011 06:43 PM