On Tuesday, our youngest child participated in Crossing the Bridge, the Girl Scout ritual of advancement. At the beginning of the ceremony, as at all Scouting ceremonies, a color guard brought in the Flag. All stood. I stood.
Then all, led by the girls, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, nor to the country for which it stands.
What is a country?
A country is a geographic perimeter, a line in the earth. On one side of the line certain things are instituted, on the other they are not. The earth itself is indistingushed. The line is entirely mental, even when it is marked by warning signs and border crossings. Within that perimeter are parameters: parameters of law, of capital, of economic condition.
A country is an assemblage of officials, both elected and appointed. There are tens of thousand who guide their days, and receive their livelihoods, by and from concrete entities representing the United States of America. Those men and women who act with a certain insignia on their sleeves may be said to be the fingers of the United States.
A country is a habit of thought.
In the early stages of the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson ordered the signal ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. He believed this statement would create a praxis, that it would cause his sailors to act in a certain manner. Two hundred years earlier, this would not have been the case. In the St Crispin’s Day speech, Shakespeare places in King Harry’s mouth many things to inspire his troops. Love of country is not among them. England makes no appearance as an entity, only as a location. In the interval between the two statements, the nation-state appeared. People, mostly in Europe, began thinking there was a “country” to which they belonged, and that this
“country” was a self-evident reality. They acquired those habits of thought, the associations, the words and names to be invoked towards action.
What is my country?
I am an American, a citizen of the United States of America. I was born within the boundaries of the United States, child of two citizens of that country. My grandparents and great-grandparents were likewise citizens of the United States, and now in turn my children.
To be an American is a fascinating thing. Of course, all countries and all peoples are fascinating. But the United States of America is a unique object, in current history, in all of human history. In many ways, the U.S.A. is the age encapsulated. I was born into the richest and most powerful nation in the world, rich and powerful in a way that no nation has ever been, in ways that no nation has ever before had the capability. The Unprecedented Era is the product of the United States, like a Model T or a Zenith television.
I live within the perimeter of the United States. I exist under its laws, under the authority of its officials. More importantly, I act out its habits. The Fourth of July is no ordinary day for me, nor is the first Tuesday in November. I feel a personal resonance with the Revolution and the Civil War, and can imagine those actions in landscapes I know. The generations of my family match the arcs of American history. I can find a place for my loved ones and myself in those events.
I will not say the Pledge of Allegiance because it is unnecessary. The United States of America has my connection; it has no need of my allegiance. I cannot escape my country. If my country does right, I shall, within my power, try to aid it. If my country does wrong, I shall, within my power, try to stymie it. For I am an American, and I believe alongside Abraham Lincoln that it is not so important for God to be on our side as we to be on God’s.
It may be that we are in the last years of the nation-state, that the improved communication & transportation technologies that enabled its birth are undermining and will finally eliminate the concept. It will join the empire and the monarchy in the past. One could make the case that my refusal to say the Pledge is evidence of that decline even within me. But not yet. The words, the flag—I know them. If I forbear the habit of the Pledge, it is in practice of other, more important American habits. That is where I find myself, at the point in history in which I exist, and from there I shall continue in my small way.