My twin brother has never really forgiven me for 9th grade. Other boys would tell him that his sister wasn’t wearing a bra (this was 1972). And every morning in homeroom I embarrassed him by refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
He had to sit next to me because we were arranged alphabetically. Every day, for 180 days, I stayed in my seat reading a book while the class stood and recited the Pledge.
They faced the flag but their eyes swiveled between the teacher and me. Mr. Smith would stand very straight in his suit and tie and lead the Pledge with increasing emphasis and energy. The muscles in his neck bulged and he never, ever, looked directly at me.
At first I thought other students might join my rebellion. But they increasingly sided with Mr. Smith. This was Cupertino, not Berkeley. They wanted me to give in. I’d made my point, couldn’t I just stand and mouth the words?
“Karen, may I speak to you?” Mr. Smith asked after several months of agony. The other students filed slowly into the mild winter sunshine, wondering what would happen now. Would I be expelled? My brother doubtlessly hoped I would be.
“I understand that you have a right to your opinions,” he said. “But I just need to know,” he paused. “Are you a Communist?”
It was pretty exciting to have someone think I was a Communist, not just a frustrated fourteen-year-old girl in a suburban wasteland.
“No, actually,” I said, and was about to explain my reasons, which had to do with the absurdity of expecting fourteen-year-olds to sit in alphabetical order and stand on cue.
“Oh,” he sighed, “that is a relief. I thought you might be a Communist. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
The Pledge of Allegiance came up once or twice during the years I lived in England after college. My friend Emma and I organized a 4th of July softball game and party, and I decorated the edge of the field with a bunch of flags I’d been given by a travel agency where I’d temped. That’s when someone asked me about our odd custom. I found that my British friends consider reciting an oath of allegiance reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers; they admired our Freedom of Information Act and puzzled over our bizarre obsession with the flag.
When my son was small, I lived in Camberwell, in south London, and was on the committee for Lettsom Gardens. I jokingly suggested a 4th of July theme for the summer barbecue, knowing I still had all those flags in a box in my bedroom, and several American friends in the neighborhood.
The Lettsom Committee said this was a fine idea and put me in charge. I was working for Valerie Eliot then and she found the story of my search for authentic American foods greatly entertaining.
I went up to the gardens early on the day of the party and put out jugs of water with teabags to sun brew. I was adjusting a streamer on the wire fencing that marked off the allotments when an elderly man came walking through from Dog Kennel Hill. I said good morning and he glanced at the American flags I’d stuck into the wire mesh. He looked again. He asked what I was doing. I explained about the barbecue that would take place later on. His eyebrows went up and he swept the cap off his head as he began a passionate denouncement of the United States and all aspects of its interference in the world, starting with the way the soldiers had behaved during the War. It was shameful, he said, the whole idea.
I’d never encountered British working-class anti-Americanism before, just the ironic middle- and upper-class kind. Yes, we came into the War at last and saved Europe, but he’d already pointed out just how long it had taken us.
He stalked off. I felt like a complete interloper, culturally and historically insensitive. But the weather held, the party took place, and most people, even the Americans, ignored the flags. It was just a summer barbecue, according to tradition, with a few odd dishes and that peculiar cold tea.
I never told a soul about the man who’d denounced me, but I still think of him when I try to explain how important it is that we understand how the world sees us.
Nationalism is the other side of patriotism, and in 2017 it is often linked in our minds with repressive, authoritarian governments like those of Russia and Turkey, or with isolationists like the Brexiters. One bit of wall graffiti in Hamburg last week read: “Borderless solidarity instead of nationalism: Attack the G-20.” It’s ironic, though, that politically liberal people are often in favor of devolution, but opposed to isolation. It’s complicated stuff, and that is why Berkshire Publishing is delighted now to offer the entire contents of Global Perspectives on the United States as a FREE online resource.
Booklist gave this three-volume set a starred review in 2007: “Not recommended reading for thin-skinned patriots; however, a great resource for academic, public, and high-school libraries.” Global Perspectives goes all the way back to colonial times and offers a historical as well as an international view of the United States. The online edition will include all 250 “nation by nation” articles from Volumes 1 and 2, as well as Volume 3’s articles on major issues, themes, and debates. In addition, we are including quotations, primary-text material, and reading lists. Authors are updating their articles and we will be replacing the older articles as we have the new material.
Global Perspectives came about because the Washington-DC-based CQ Press asked Berkshire to develop a work on this topic, and it was originally to be published by them. We got into a dispute, however, when they wanted us to censor some of the authors’ work, and we refused. This had the positive result that Berkshire became the publisher. I was deeply committed to the project’s aims, even though I had sworn I would never deal with political scientists and hadn’t yet got involved with China. There was a simple reason: due to the years I’d lived abroad, I had come to see my home country differently. I appreciated it more in some ways, and saw its weaknesses more clearly.
A controversial spin-off from the academic Global Perspectives was the interactive website www.LoveUSHateUS.com, which gave us our first experience with hackers. My idea was to get people to be specific, to share stories and anecdotes, facts and figures, rather than offer opinions. That worked more or less, but what stands out for me is the variety of people who contributed, in the United States and outside it, from different nationalities and ethnicities and backgrounds. We are working out how to relaunch the project as a forum in our new WordPress site, with sufficient security and at least a couple of moderators.
I imagine that the demonstration of nationalism, and patriotism, such as the Pledge of Allegiance, is something we’ll debate, because we continue to see this in different ways. I was talking to two young Europeans the other evening when we were told to stand for the “lowering of the colors” at a club restaurant on the Long Island shore. Many people put their hands on their hearts while the US flag was lowered from the flagpole. I asked my companions what they thought of all this. They said it was odd but they were used to it, and that the Super Bowl had been the biggest surprise: the singing of the anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance. “We don’t do things like that in Europe.”
This reminded me of the time when I did say the Pledge of Allegiance, as a public official, an officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I had to stand in front of the community television camera with the other nine respectable school committee members, hand on heart, every week. On the first occasion, I thought about refusing, as I had in 9th grade. But that seemed the wrong battle to pick. Instead, I said each word clearly. Indivisible. With liberty and justice. For all.
When I say those words today, every now and then, Mr. Smith is at the back of my mind. I still think the Pledge of Allegiance is a silly practice and that Americans in the twenty-first century should give it up. (It was adopted by Congress in 1942, and the words “under God” were added in 1954, so the Pledge is hardly part of our democratic heritage.)
But I also wonder what we would find to replace the ritual that draws everyone in our high school auditorium on Town Meeting night—friends and enemies, wealthy newcomers and local people whose families go back to the Revolution—together, speaking in unison. I am happy to think that we have, on some abstract level, a common commitment to liberty and justice. And I find myself touched by a ritual that all of us can join in.