Monday, November 17, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Moral Irrelevance of Location

A constitutional right to engage in some action does not imply that it is right to engage in that action.

You have a constitutional right to write a book denouncing Jews and arguing that they should be rounded up and shipped off to Israel. However, the fact that you have this right does not imply that there is nothing wrong with making such a claim. The fact that something is not unconstitutional does not imply that it is not immoral.

Slavery was once a constitutional right. One would be hard pressed to argue that this implied that slavery was morally permissible. Indeed, a great many people in the period before the civil war argued that slavery was immoral irrespective of what the Constitution said on the matter. Eventually, they got enough political support to make slavery unconstitutional as well; though it had always been immoral.

In Woodbury Vermont, the school officials there are resisting attempts to have the Pledge of Allegiance said in the classroom. (See: Detroit Free Press: Vermont town feuds over where schoolkids say pledge) Their argument was that the Pledge invites students to look upon non-participants with scorn, and that this is not an appropriate atmosphere for any child to be put in at school. So, those officials have looked at ways of taking the stigma out of not saying the Pledge – by giving those students who want to do so the opportunity to go to the Gym and say so, while other students remain behind.

However, there is a segment of the population that is not happy with this option. It denies them the opportunity to practice what they truly value in having the Pledge of Allegiance said in a public school, a chance to clearly communicate that those who do not say the Pledge are inferior creatures. They continue to fight to have the Pledge recited in the classroom.

In response to this protest, the school changed its policies and brought the whole school into one room to say the Pledge.

I agree that this second option is subject to the same objection as the first option. It is not a compromise, it is a surrender on principle – much of the way that McCain surrendered the argument that inexperience disqualifies a person for the White House when he selected Sarah Palin as his vice-Presidential candidate.

This is not the point, however. The point is that, the real problem with the Pledge is in its content, and the content cannot be changed by changing its location.

Imagine a school having a debate over where to hold a "black people suck" rally. The school administration, sensitive to the fact that this rally might make black students in the classroom (or students being raised by black parents or who had black friends) feel like they are being singled out for scorn and ridicule. So, they decide that they will hold their "black people suck" rally in the school gym instead. At the appointed time, a student goes around and collects those who want to participate in the "black people suck rally", who all go off to the school gym and have their rally, while the other students stay in the classroom with their friends.

The Pledge of Allegiance, with the words, "under God", is, literally, an "atheists suck rally." More specifically, it is an "atheists, rebels, tyrants, and the unjust suck rally," but "atheists suck" is clearly a part of the equation, and clearly the part of the equation that a large majority of those who defend this ritual has the strongest affection for. For a school to have a debate on where to hold this "atheists suck rally" is as absurd as a school having a debate on where to hold its "black people suck" rally.

If we look at the arguments being advanced by those who want the "atheists suck rally" held in the classrooms rather than in a common room in the school, they do not say anything to answer the objections raised against the practice. The people who oppose having the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom have some sense that there is something wrong with this practice – though they do not grasp the issue well enough to realize that moving the "atheists suck rally" to a common room does not solve the problem. The people in favor of holding the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom ignore even those minor moral concerns that the opponents raise.

For example, according to the article:

"Saying the pledge in the classroom is legal, convenient and traditional," Tedesco said. "Asking kindergarten through sixth-graders who want to say the pledge to leave their classrooms to do so is neither convenient nor traditional."

Note that, 150 years ago, exactly the same argument could be made in terms of slavery. This, too, was legal (in fact, a constitutionally protected right), convenient (for the slave owner), and traditional. Slavery had been around for thousands of years and was only recently being questioned on a large scale.

But none of this makes it right. None of this argues that, as a result, the country should legalize the practice of slavery again – to return to the customs and traditions of our founding fathers.

An important point here is that, in the same way that slavery was convenient only for the slave owner, holding the "atheists suck rally" in the classroom is convenient only for those who support "atheists suck rallies". It is not so convenient for the targets of such a rally – and that targeting of others who do not deserve it is exactly what the school officials are showing a sensitivity towards. They are not showing sufficient sensitivity – but at least they recognize that "there is something going on there that just isn’t right."

Beth Shaw, at, has another argument. (See Vermont Pledge of Allegiance Controversy).

Here’s the deal. This is the United States of America. Vermont is one of the United States. Therefore, it is expected that someone going to school in a Vermont town is a citizen of the United States of America. Considering all those factors, it is reasonable to expect that the citizens of Woodbury, Vermont would have an allegiance to the country in which they live. It is therefore reasonable for the children to learn the Pledge of Allegiance as part of their schooling. It is, after all, their country.

By this argument, if we write a little bit of patriotism into a "black students suck" rally – if we make it an, "I love my country where we hold that black people suck" rally, then this alone would obligate schools and teachers to hold the rally inside of the classroom. Yet, this simply ignores the moral argument – the argument that schools should not be having "black people suck" rallies no matter how many flags are present or how much the rally also promotes patriotism. Indeed, it would (or should) soil the patriotic aspect to link such bigotry with patriotism so closely.

The controversial part of this, of course, is the claim that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance counts as an "atheists suck rally", morally equivalent to holding a "black people suck rally."

But is it not the case that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is a "rebellion sucks category"? The word "indivisible" was put into the pledge, which was created 30 years after the Civil War, precisely to teach the lesson that no good American would support rebellion.

And is it not the case that the Pledge of Allegiance is a "tyranny and injustice sucks rally"? Again, it is absolutely absurd to deny that a part of the purpose of the Pledge was and is to teach children that good Americans value liberty and justice for all, and that nobody who supports tyranny and injustice can count as a good American.

And so it follows that the words "under God" added to the original pledge – changing its "rebellion, tyranny, and injustice sucks rally" into an "atheism, rebellion, tyranny, and injustice sucks rally."

Except, holding an "atheists sucks rally" in a public classroom is as morally objectionable as holding a "black people suck" rally.

Moving the rally into a public room in the school and saying, "Those students who want to participate in the ‘black people suck’ please assemble in the auditorium," does not answer the basic moral objection.


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I love you blog. You tend to say so much better and more clearly than I ever could what I am feeling. Keep up the good work.
Scott M.

Bill Cooney said...

Alonzo,I'm delighted to have come across your blog. I get the feeling I'm going to have my eyes opened up a little bit here.

You've whet my appetite for taking on the "under God" issue in the Pledge of Allegiance. I get a little miffed when a self-described secularist passes this one up and suggests it's "not a big deal." To me - and apparently you and others - it's a very big deal.

Can't wait to catch up on your back posts.

Bill C.