Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Republic for Witches' Hands

As an object lesson on freedom of thought (and indeed of Political Correctness), I liked Mike Whitney's recent Counterpunch post on the Pledge of Allegiance, which one of my friends linked today.
The Pledge of Allegiance is not an expression of patriotism. It is a loyalty oath that one normally associates with totalitarian regimes. People who love freedom, should be appalled by the idea our children are being coerced to stand and declare their support for the state. This is the worst form of indoctrination and it is completely anathema to the principals [sic] articulated in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I cannot imagine outspoken libertarians like Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine ever proclaiming their loyalty to the state when they correctly saw the state as the greatest threat to individual freedom. Which it is.
Not bad; but unfortunately Whitney goes on:
Now I’d have no problem if our schoolchildren recited the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence before class every day:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

That’s great stuff, unfortunately, the people who run this country would never allow it. They’d never allow our kids to recite an incendiary, revolutionary document like that every day for fear it would incite violence against the state.
See, I have concerns about group recitation of just about anything.  When you're working on memorization and getting the recital synchronized, the content tends to get lost.  And it's well-known that young children don't really understand even the simpler Pledge of Allegiance; humorists have gotten plenty of mileage and laughs over how even older kids garble it.  I doubt they'd do any better with the opening of the Declaration.  It seems to me that if Whitney really is one of those who love freedom, if he really wanted schoolchildren to understand the ideals and principles America stands for, he wouldn't want them standing at attention and reciting this passage in unison either.

Also, does he want to stop with the preamble?  I'm sure that as a good progressive, Whitney is aware of some of the less edifying stuff that comes later in the Declaration, like the complaint that King George "has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."  (I'm currently reading Claudio Saunt's recent book West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 [W. W. Norton, 2014], which among other things shows that the merciless colonialist savages were busily stealing Indian land at that time, giving the Indians good reasons and grounds to fight back.)  As a good progressive, he surely would want students to learn that indiscriminate killing (as opposed, say, to torture) was not a war rule of the Indians, but of Europeans.  Or maybe not -- from what I've observed, liberals and progressives are just as likely as conservatives to believe that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are guaranteed by the Constitution instead of the Declaration.

But that is the point: everything should be open to thinking and criticism. The opening paragraphs of the Declaration should also be read with open eyes. For example: What does "self-evident" mean? Why did the founders talk about liberty as an inalienable right, when so many of them owned slaves and had no intention of setting them free?  Second-graders won't ask such questions, perhaps, but middle-school students will, if they're given the chance.  These aren't just questions of academic, antiquarian interest, either: they're urgently timely today.  Time spent memorizing and chanting is time taken away from such a chance, and I'm not much interested in which text is recited.

That's why I laugh when my right-wing acquaintances say that we should teach the Constitution to kids. I agree, we should, and probably we do.  But they don't really mean it.  If they themselves have read the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in the past forty years, which is doubtful, they didn't read them with any attention.

Whitney's inability to "imagine outspoken libertarians like Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine ever proclaiming their loyalty to the state" indicates a failure of his imagination as well as of his historical knowledge, for when Jefferson became a head of state he expected loyalty and indeed obeisance to its head. (Paine never became a head of state, so we can only speculate what he'd have done in that position.)  Jefferson's record on civil liberties while President has long been an embarrassment to his fans, but demands of loyalty to the American state came much earlier, during the Revolution itself.

I also disagree with Whitney's confident assertion that "the people who run this country would never allow ... our kids to recite an incendiary, revolutionary document like that every day for fear it would incite violence against the state."  If the Declaration of Independence were really so "incendiary," it wouldn't be read in school at all, or allowed in school libraries let alone textbooks.  Yet it is.  Memorization and recitation dull thought, however, and the best way to damp the fires of those ideals would be to force students to deal with them in that way, rather than reading and understanding them.  As for "violence against the state," does he think that people like Cliven Bundy were motivated by study of the Declaration of Independence?  But then, maybe they did study it, and like the founders they used high-minded principles to justify their own greed and racism.  Revolt isn't a good thing in itself: you have to have good reasons.  And hardly anybody, anywhere on the American political spectrum, is interested in reasons, in applying skepticism and critical reason to our political discourse and programs.

Whitney throws around the word "democracy" rather too freely, as in "In a democracy, the representatives of the state are supposed to pledge their loyalty to the people and to the laws that protect them."  In fact, they do, don't they?  They just don't keep their oaths, and no one really expects them to.  There are times when I think the word "democracy" should be ditched along with the Pledge, or at least we should declare a moratorium on its use until people have thought some more about what it means.  Like most political buzzwords, including "freedom," it is used sloppily and dishonestly, to stir emotion rather than to foster thought.  The US is not and never has been a democracy, and I imagine Whitney knows that: he's just indulging his moral mind here, waving around empty buzzwords to show that he's on the right side and his heart is pure.  That makes me as suspicious of him as I am of Republican and Democratic politicians who use the same tactic.