A Word on the Pledge of Allegiance

If you’ve spent any amount of time in an American public school, you probably know the pledge of allegiance by heart, but for the sake of my non-US readers here it is in full:

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.

The phrase “under God” was included in 1954 to differentiate the United States from the godless Commies over on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and it’s usually the main point of contention amongst people who criticize the pledge.  I disagree with them, not because I believe in any kind of God, but because I don’t think they are going far enough in their stance.

In my opinion, the whole pledge itself should be done away with.  My reasons for stating this are twofold: 1. A country that prides itself on granting its citizens the freedom of having a dissent opinion has no business asking said citizens (especially children who can’t even fully make out what they’re swearing an oath to) to pledge their allegiance to principles and entities they are free to criticize and reject, if they so choose.  2. It serves no real purpose, other than to give overzealous patriots the mistaken belief that they are contributing to society by babbling a bunch of words to a piece of cloth hanging on a pole.  And that’s essentially what every flag is, a piece of cloth on a pole.  It has no inherent value or meaning, outside of the ones you are willing to bestow on it.  The pledge will not–cannot–ensure that the children who spent 12 years reciting it become good, honest, upstanding citizens.

Does anyone actually believe that there exists a scenario in which some 32 year old man who was about to commit tax fraud, suddenly stopped and thought to himself, “Wait a minute, I once pledged my allegiance to the flag…so I can’t in good conscience go through with this crime.”  This has never happened, and it will never happen.  The pledge of allegiance has no deterring affect on anyone, doing anything.

The usually criticism I receive for my position on this issue is that I am being unpatriotic, to which I reply, “I’m aware of that, now what’s your point?”  I’ve written before where I stand on the topic of patriotism, and have nothing more to add on to my previous post.

The other rebuttal I have heard is that I’m being silly, and that the pledge is harmless.  But this is not really a point of disagreement with anything I’ve said.  In fact, it fits neatly in with point two above.  The pledge is harmless in the sense that it carries little relevance to the people who go through it on a daily basis.  Most students just stand there looking off into space, waiting for the loudspeaker to finish reciting the pledge, so that they can sit back down and carry on doing whatever it was they were doing before hand.  So, what exactly is the point of this ritual, then?  Are we so insecure as a nation that we need to demand our citizens learn to parrot an oath to our flag from early youth, lest they might actually stop to think about the faults of the country they happen to have been arbitrarily born in?

Do you want to know how I pledge my allegiance to this country?  I follow its laws, I pay my taxes, and (if asked) I’ll serve jury duty.  I leave other law-abiding citizens alone to their business, and I expect the same in return.  That is my pledge to this country and its citizens, and to all countries and people around the world.  And I don’t need children to mindlessly recite it back to me every morning so that I can feel more assured in my personal convictions.

The Self-Serving Root Behind Selflessness

In years past, I spent a significant portion of my free time volunteering at various hospitals and clinics.  My reason for doing this was always simply to offer a helping hand at venues that are in need of it.  However, deep down, I have to admit that my altruism also harbored a certain level of self-centeredness.  The volunteer work I did had no negative consequences on my life, and the moment it did there existed a decent chance that I would have abandoned it immediately.  (Yet, I still can’t be absolutely sure on this last part, since my observations inform me that we are very fond of the pleasures we derive from the self-flagellation of retelling, and re-imagining, personal hardships and sacrifices, and I have no reason to believe that I’m an exception to this mindset.)

Listen to any biography of any celebrity or public figure and you will instantly spot a narrative of personal triumph over great adversity (it doesn’t actually matter whether or not the adversity is of genuine helplessness, or the result of poor lifestyle decisions), the sentiment is always one of complete adoration for even the slightest of inconveniences a person may have faced.  And we love our inconveniences,  for if we didn’t have them what would we define our characters by?

It also makes us look stronger when we exaggerate our setbacks, especially if it’s to ourselves.  Not to mention it creates more interesting memories.  Neglectful mothers change into alcoholics, spiteful fathers become sadists, and that neighborhood boy that used to torture you after school turns into four thugs that you fought off with nothing but a broomstick.  There is satisfaction in knowing you’ve experienced something out of the ordinary.  Within that mindset even the most degrading past can make you feel good about yourself.  I can’t imagine anyone argue how that’s a bad thing?  It isn’t, as long as you make an effort not to forget what it is that you are doing here–how you are not reminiscing about the past, but creating and adapting it to your liking.

It is not a matter of lying to ourselves in order to function properly (that would imply a conscious effort).  No, in reality we function properly precisely because we lie to ourselves.  And we do it effortlessly.

This is best illustrated by the  average western-educated social activist, who feels the need to promote modernization efforts in the developing world, but refuses to acknowledge the fact that he is by extension claiming a level of superiority for his own cultural institutions.

To us living comfortably in the 21st century, to hear such talk is appalling to the highest degree.  How dare anyone dismiss a people’s culture, and in need of restructuring, simply because it lacks technological advancements, or the sociopolitical values we in the developed world might hold dear?!  But to me, this is a strange position to hold as it lies in contrast to every humanitarian effort ever organized.

When we speak of the need to spread literacy to impoverished tribal communities, are we not implying that the educational system we have designed is somehow better than that of these proud communities?  No?  Then why not allow them to carry on with their noble ways, undisturbed by the pesky trivialities of academics which obviously hold no merit to them?  When we insist on how important it is to promote democracy throughout the world, are we not also asserting that our system of governing is superior to that of civilizations which have seemingly gotten along for centuries without the ability to elect their figureheads?  Surely, by demanding all to conform to a matter we uphold as most virtues and important we are being condescending, refusing to acknowledge the self-serving interest that comes along from trying to impose values that are not indigenous to these regions.

Of course, we can make a respectable argument that we have good reasons for wanting to spread literacy, because an educated populace is more likely to persevere against the growing influence of a globalized economy.  Also, we can argue how we should champion the ideals of democracy, if we honestly do believe it to be the most rationally sound form of governance possible.  This is all well and good, but the fact still stands that we think that we possess a knowledge others simply do not.  A mentality of, “your way is fine, but mine’s better.”  Although we dare not say this aloud, because to do so would to most people imply a negation of the genuinely altruistic narrative that we have constructed around such much needed acts of charity.

Personally, I view such responses as absurdly redundant, because it is one thing for us to indulge in the clout of political correctness, but let us at least stop fooling ourselves with this absurd image of reluctant saviors that we have so readily concocted around activities we obviously have both an altruistic and self-serving, interest to perform (admitting the latter does not cheapen the former, at least not in my mind).

There is no need to lie to ourselves about the motivations we have for our actions, but to do otherwise is to me an impossible request.  To ask us as human beings to cease having a split-brained outlook, is to ask us to cease being human beings.  Even if we recognize and understand the irrationalities of our character quirks, we still can’t help but fall victim to them.  Nor would we know how not to want to.

The State of Journalism Today

“Journalism is dead.”

“Journalism is thriving online.”

“Journalism is devolving.”

“Journalism is changing.”

“There are no real journalists left.”

“The people are the modern day journalists.”

With so many contradictory and incompatible soundbites being thrown around about the same profession, one wouldn’t be blamed to concluded that the true state of journalism is a very schizoid beast these days.  Of course, a lot of the opinions thrown around concerning journalism (as a profession, and as a practice)  will depend on a person’s viewpoint.

People who prefer a more traditional, investigative approach to journalism (à la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) will bemoan the talking head, opinionated turn journalism has taken.  24-hour news channels partially set us down the path of conditioning us to a more commercialized, on-demand source for our news consumption.  In contrast, true investigative journalism takes a lot of time and resources, especially if said journalists aims to uphold their work to a passable level of ethical responsibility (i.e. cross-reference sources, don’t force a narrative, forego personal biases when contradicted by facts, and don’t speak for the facts of the case but let the facts speak for themselves).  These are, of course, responsibilities that news channels often ignore.  That’s not to say that they do not/cannot employ or report solid investigative journalism on an individual basis, but that as for-profit institutions (who rely on investors and advertisers) their primary incentive cannot be said to lie with simply investigating (and, if need be, challenging) the truth of newsworthy cases–they lie with not upsetting the agencies and institutions that they depend on to pay the bills.

This is where the controversy surrounding retaining access comes into play.  News journalists want to be able to talk to newsworthy individuals.  By large, these individuals will be less willing to talk to journalists (and the networks/publications they represent) if they feel antagonized by them, which is why journalists have an incentive to mitigate this apprehension for the sake of the newsworthy individuals, so as to retain access to them throughout the course of their relevance in the news.  Such a setup makes it difficult to properly investigate or challenge people/events/organizations/authorities, at least to the point that it calls for to present a comprehensive, undiluted report to the public.  If Woodward and Bernstein had been concerned with having access to President Nixon, and the other perpetrators of the Watergate scandal, the presentation of the facts in that case might have been much softer to the public, than the truth of the high-level criminal act (on the part of Nixon and his accomplices) that it was shown to be.  This is why access journalism has to, by its nature, be conservative (that’s small “c” conservative, meaning an interest in the continuity of current institutional structures, not necessarily a right-wing political leaning).

The advent of exclusively online news sources (bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, and just online personalities and commentators in general), has been described as a reaction against this kind of access journalism.  Some even consider it a return to the more robust form of journalism, because it gives voice and power directly to the people, without first being filtered through advertisers, agencies, and corporate structures.  However, there is an obvious flaw with this model, too.  Namely, “the people” aspect.

This may be an unpopular opinion to state in the blogosphere, but the public in general doesn’t make for a good judge on truth (or justice, for that matter).  While a medium spearheaded by  what can colloquially be referred to as popular public interest will have little qualms about challenging anyone it deems to be wrong on an issue (any popular online comment section is a testament to this fact), the actual investigative component of good journalism will almost always be all but forgotten through this format.  That’s the part about needing to cross-reference sources, not forcing a narrative, foregoing personal biases when contradicted by facts, and not speaking for the facts of the case but letting the facts speak for themselves.

How may online news commentators and personalities hold to this standard, when what they’re reporting goes against the conclusions and narratives they already agree with and wish to promote?  Very few, indeed.  Because they don’t need to.  And that’s why it’s so easy to start social media outrages and “witchhunts” over minor individual infractions instigated by online commentators who want to play at journalism, but don’t want to do the hard work required by it.  Their audience (and with the rise of gofundme, patreon, and monetization of view counts, one can even go so far as to call this audience “their funders and investors”) doesn’t watch and listen to be informed on a topic; they watch to have their presupposed opinions validated.  The only checks that are in place here are other online commentators who will criticize you from their sites and channels, none of which really matters if you have a large enough audience to withstand such attacks, regardless of how misinformed your opinions really are.

[A quick word needs to be mentioned concerning another popular route of dispensing news (especially regarding confidential truths): the whistleblower.  WikiLeaks is a good example of a medium which will publish information obtained by clearance-sensitive personnel that otherwise would have been unavailable to the public.  Although whistleblower resources like this can, and do, play a vital role in investigative journalism, it would be technically incorrect to deem either the whistleblowers, or the medium they publish their provided information through, as journalists.  The journalist is the journalist, not his or her source or the medium he or she works for.  And whistleblowers are by definition always a source, never the investigators of a news story.]

If this post sounds like an elitist appeal that’s because it is.  Just like I believe only elite basketball players should go on to play for the NBA, and only elite authors should win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe only elite journalists, who uphold the most basic of investigative standards and integrity asked of by their profession, ought to be regarded as actually being members of said profession.  And, in my opinion, there are very few self-professed journalists striving to uphold such a standard today.  Moreover, the mediums we are depending on to get our news from seem less and less conducive to fostering any sort of journalistic integrity at all.  A trend I don’t see changing any time soon.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.