“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.”
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, for much of my early and middle childhood, spending many of those years – as children often do – in school. Each morning, the entire school population was required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, each morning internalising each word a little deeper. In Texas, you also have to pledge allegiance to Texas itself. “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”
I haven’t spoken any of those words for over two decades, yet I can remember the whole thing verbatim (including the redundant wording within the Texas pledge, and its glaring omissions when spoken against the national pledge). Such is the power of the repetitive conditioning drilled into children in the United States.
It doesn’t stop with the Pledge. As has been discussed and debated nonstop for the past several years, the story told to American children about the country they live in is a series of sanitised fictions. It certainly was in the end-of-history 1990s: I remember learning about what seemed to be the only country ever to fight for its freedom; a country that, uniquely and without precedent, ended slavery; that essentially invented democracy, economics, art, music, and more. “History” and “American History” were basically interchangeable terms; hell, putting “American” in front of any subject was a meaningless exercise, the word disappearing into background noise through sheer ubiquity. America was the world, and even if it wasn’t the world, it was certainly the greatest country in it.
Most of my classmates had never been to another country. They had no mental picture of what they were like save for what they saw in movies (which were almost always produced by Americans). So they had no reason not to buy into American exceptionalism; no reason to think America wasn’t the greatest country – as campaigning politicians often claim – the world had ever known. And they had every reason to believe it: as a child, you feel pretty fucking cool when you’re told you’re lucky enough to live in the world’s greatest country. It feels good to be proud of things, and when you’re given the incomplete story of the United States that’s told to schoolchildren, it’s easy to feel proud of it. You’re not just some foreigner in some foreign classroom: you’re part of a grand tapestry of history, pushing bravely forward while, as implied through omission, other countries languish.
Coming as I did from another country, I had a slightly different outlook. I’d been to other countries – well, New Zealand – and it didn’t seem any less free than the United States. If anything, it was a little bit more open, the cars a little less obnoxious, the people a little less gripped by fear. Everything was smaller, the temples to capitalism weren’t as impressive, and to me, crucially, movies didn’t come out at the same time, but none of that seemed like an issue with “greatness.” It was just a different country. I don’t know whether my parents influenced my thinking on it, but I could sense a whiff of bullshit about American exceptionalism. It was definitely boring to recite the pledge, at any rate. But there was something inspiring about that story, and even as I had my doubts, I wanted to believe. It felt good to be, as we were told we were, always on the right side of history. Incredible how that happens when you’re the one writing the history.
To non-Americans, the forced daily recitation of the Pledge feels barbarically jingoistic, bordering on brainwashing. Hearing of the practice, people start saying they can’t believe it, only to quickly recant, because of course that’s what happens there. How else do you get people screaming about their country’s greatness when its population doesn’t have guaranteed healthcare, when it’s beset by poverty and government corruption, when it’s the one nation in the world that experiences mass shootings on a regular basis? Of course it’s through propaganda. By making the myth of America a truism and a part of people’s identity, it makes any attempt to question that myth into a personal affront. Making such a core value out of patriotism for its own sake is a bizarre practice, and it gets more bizarre – and more insistent – the more America’s ugly underbelly shows.
I was struck this week by how, when confronted by a Sky News reporter about the fact that school shootings seem to be a uniquely American problem, Texas senator Ted Cruz immediately retreated behind this same fiction. Unable to answer the question, Cruz trots out the line as a reflex, like a threatened man clutching for a good-luck charm. It’s clear he doesn’t believe it – not really. It’s a line designed to deflect, to obfuscate, to intimidate, and most of all to shut down conversation. From an elected official, it’s the kind of thing that sounds superficially like someone doing their job, but subjected to even a microgram of critical thinking, it’s honestly just pathetic.
The Columbine massacre happened in the last couple months of my American schooling. I was eleven, in fifth grade, and we stopped in the middle of class to talk about it. We were stunned and afraid. This was long before school shootings became such a regular occurrence that “Columbine,” once almost a generic term for such an event, became superseded by others. We talked about what had happened, how we felt about it, and how it could have come to pass. For what it’s worth, my class landed on “white supremacy” as a likely cause, on account of the shooting taking place on Hitler’s birthday.
That was in 1999. Two decades later, mass shootings are both more frequent and more openly fueled by white nationalism – a belief system now inextricably tied, thanks to the efforts of one particular president, to a notion of American “greatness”.
There’s a case to be made, perhaps, for shielding children from unpleasant truths until they’re older and more capable of processing them. But if we’re going to insist children process the prospect of getting shot at school, maybe we can entrust them with a more complicated national narrative than “we’re the best and we always have been”.
You can know your country isn’t the best and still have hope. But if you’re told your country is the best and it’s still horrifying, where do you go from there?