Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I Pledge Allegiance

After hearing all the hoopla over the “I Pledge” video, I went to YouTube and watched it, to see what all the fuss is about. What I found was just a bunch of “celebrities” promising to do more than they have been doing—in small ways and not-so-small ways—to help make our country and our world a better place. Sure, their preferences for where and how to get involved reflect their own political values—so would yours and mine if we were the ones making the video. But honestly, unless predisposed or pre-programmed to do so, who could possibly object to what they are proposing to do? What kind of American is opposed to people with money and influence using some of it for good instead of squandering it all?

But what I’m really disappointed about—though not really surprised by—is the ham-handed hermeneutical handling of this "text" in the blogosphere, on talk radio, and even on Facebook. The "Fox Paraphrase" being so carelessly bandied about never actually appears in the video’s script. Only by conflating two remarks, by two different speakers, at two different points in the video can one come up with the tasty sound bite being quoted almost as frequently as Sarah Palin says “death panels.”

Anthony Kiedis (bicep-kissing RHCP) says, "I pledge to be of service to Barack Obama." Then, at the very end, Demi Moore pledges to “be a servant to our president,” with Ashton Kutcher adding “and to all mankind” (Yes, I bristle over this use of non-inclusive “mankind” where “humanity” could just as easily have been used). Put them all together, they spell “I pledge to serve Barack Obama.” The problem is that, even allowing for the conflation, the negative connotation being suggested for “serve” and “servant” can’t really be supported by what the video actually says.

First, any moderately skilled practitioner of the English language should be able to determine that "to be of service to" and "to serve" do not mean the same thing. When I thank someone, who then replies, “glad to be of service,” I don’t assume that we have just entered into a master/slave arrangement. I don’t assume this person is “pledging” to be my bidding. I understand that the expression is idiomatic and conveys a sense of “serve” or “service” as providing help, not blind, partisan obedience. Second, within the larger context of the video’s theme, announced at the beginning, of offering encouraging support to the President (i.e. “you’re not alone”), this totally non-controversial remark is clearly announcing an intention to be in partnership with, not subservient to. I want someone to explain to me how any other reading of these words is anything more than a willful, adversarial, and ultimately deceptive misconstruing of their plain sense. Doesn’t intellectual honesty dictate that we correctly read, hear, and interpret the words of others—even if we don’t agree with their political views?

Demi’s words undeniably cast her in the role of a “servant,” though not to Barack Obama per se, but rather to “our president.” If we assume that the more general reference was chosen deliberately, her pledge takes on a more universal tone. Members of the Cabinet, White House staff, U.S. Attorneys, and many others in Washington “serve at the pleasure of the President.” We refer to the president as “the leader of the free world,” which implies that some degree of following of this leader is expected. Therefore, the concept of “serving the president” is not inherently illogical, or even unAmerican—merely repugnant to some.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that some of these who find this video so repugnant have bona fide philosophical objections and aren’t merely venting anti-Hollywood venom, or worse yet, a rabid, racist partisanship. For some of these, I believe it is the concept of “citizen” that, when coupled with notions of inherent rights and freedoms, causes them to reject the idea of being a servant to the president. If we can agree on a working definition of a citizen as “a person owing allegiance to and entitled to the protection of a sovereign state,” especially as distinguished from a subject, who owes “allegiance to a personal sovereign such as a monarch” (both definitions are from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary), we can see in both cases a reciprocity of obligation. You may be inclined to reject the definition I have chosen, preferring to think of citizenship more as a quid pro quo arrangement: citizens give allegiance and get protection in return. Or perhaps even this configuration: the State gives protection to its citizens, so they offer it their allegiance in return . . . at least for as long as they agree with the State’s leaders and those leaders don’t try to speak words of encouragement to their children without parental consent.

I am a staunch proponent of the social contract theory of government. I believe that legitimate governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. But I also believe that this consent is given collectively, not individually. I can’t “opt out” just because I didn’t vote for or don’t agree with the current, duly elected leaders. Even as a free citizen, I owe my allegiance to my country, and I express that allegiance in a variety of ways, both literal and figurative. I was raised in a time when “traditional American values” included extending the same allegiance to the symbols of the country that was owed to the country itself, and the two most prominent, concrete symbols were the American flag and the Office of the President. Sometimes these acts of allegiance were commonplace: don’t let the flag touch the ground and stand up when the president enters the room. But others were extraordinary, as free citizens willingly chose to die to protect both the flag and the president. The “United States of America” is an abstraction and, therefore, not easily “served” apart from its visible representations.

How can an American citizen feel demeaned by the thought of being of service to, or even the servant of, the President of the United States—whether that president is George W. Bush or Barack Obama?

When did we become so petty and vicious and arrogant and childish and short-sighted in our partisanship?

I know that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Not a Libertarian either. And as far as I know, God did not intervene in the election of either George Bush or Barak Obama. Nations come and nations go, civilizations rise and fall, and the world goes on. But I do think Jesus gives a rat’s ass about what we are doing to our country and to our fellow Americans.