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Indian Thoughts on the Prayer Breakfast and the Pledge of Allegiance

F. Scott Fitzgerald might have been talking about American Indians when he wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Indians are in that position from the day they become self-aware of the predicament to which they were born. They either learn to deal with radical contradictions or curl up in a fetal position and be pummeled.

I pledge allegiance to the United States of America but I object to others doing so in public at the behest of government. Just like those who pray should object to others doing so in public at the behest of government, a conclusion obvious to non-Christians as well as to Christians who take Matthew 6:6 to heart.

I’d like to shoot one canard from the duck blind before I embark on objecting to the Pledge of Allegiance. No, my private pledge (the one that goes with military service) is not a capitulation to assimilation. It’s rejecting the Manichean view of assimilation, that assimilation only runs in one direction and results in the death of one of the two cultures in collision.

That’s just silly. Cultures are not static and never were, and if history teaches anything it’s that the most robust cultures are the least static. When two cultures collide they are both changed forever. The only questions on the table are what changes and how quickly.

Kill the colonists or run them off, to take it to the extreme of idiocy, and the collision is still a bell that cannot be unrung. This would be why, when the Brits and the Dutch showed up, there were already already rare blue eyes in the indigenous gene pool, but it’s more important that a behavioral tool kit had been expanded by contact.

No, I don’t pledge allegiance to dominance but to allies in the nation-state game, even if those allies are not always the best of neighbors. Whether they were the best of a bad lot is subject to reasonable discussion, but for the nation-state game, they will do. The currently dying nation-state game has only been afoot since 1648 and our cultures are much older than that. But so are theirs.

I used to think we got the preachers and the Australian Aboriginals got the criminals and the Aussies got the better of the deal. But I’ve heard a couple of spirited dissents from Aboriginals that talked me down from that. Still, I don’t doubt where the Aboriginal nations of Australia would come down if their lands were invaded by a different set of would-be occupiers.

So why, knowing you’ve pledged allegiance in private, object to a public manifestation of it? These ruminations on explaining were touched off by these words in a debate about the world’s economic woes, which had gotten off on comparing the United States’ response to Japan’s.

“In Japan,” my interlocutor lamented by the comparison, “family structure is strong there. Families take care of their own and don't expect the government to do it for them. Also, there is a sense of pride for producing and shame for not doing your part, what we miss here. There is a loyalty to the company, employer that most Americans don't understand. I remember passing one business in Tokyo where all of the employees gathered outside the door when it opened, reciting the company mission. This wasn't an unusual thing. Here we have troubles with the Pledge of Allegiance in some areas.”

I don’t disagree with his remarks on the positive side of Japanese cultural values. The positives are there to be seen at a glance: extreme loyalty, excellent craftsmanship, personal responsibility to the collective, reliable care of the commons. All valid observations of a nation that can also be racist, insular and imperialistic.

Japan’s Axis allies also were splendid people in a glass half-full sense. Germany didn’t get on the cutting edge of science and technology by accident, and Roman culture—pre-Italy Italian—marks most of the world even today.

My hero, Will Rogers, was very tight with Mussolini, only backing off when the Fascists began to get crosswise with the two countries for which he always expressed love, the United States (Mussolini) and the Cherokee Nation (Hitler via his comments about Indians in Mein Kampf.)

The great Modernist poet Ezra Pound did not back off on Mussolini when things got dicey or, for that matter, on Hitler. Pound did time in a mental institution when he was found mentally unfit to be tried for treason, and if he was malingering, he did so convincingly enough to never finish the Cantos. Pound, the raving anti-Semite, in his final years befriended a young Allen Ginsberg, apparently wrapping his considerable intellect around some serious contradictions.

Among them, Japan and Germany and Italy carry some of the richest and deepest wells of culture in the sense of seeking and representing truth. If those cultures can go wrong, any culture can.

Maybe it’s because I am a boomer, raised with both the stories of WWII and the lived experience of great art being linked with absurd politics, but I despise the very existence of the Pledge of Allegiance. When I was in elementary school, I got in trouble because I would not say the new words, “under God.” As a child, I said I had no problem with the rest of it. Now I have a problem with all of it.

“Under God” arrived in 1954, because the U.S. adopted the line that Communism is atheistic by necessity by cherry-picking Marx quotes and by pointing to the Soviet nonsense of “dialectical materialism.” This was handy because it put God on our side. It was one of the more radical ways but hardly the only way the Cold War distorted culture generally and K-12 education in particular.

Products of that wretched education system, most Americans cannot rather than will not think in any manner other than Manichean, right or wrong, black or white, Cherokee or colonial—whatever the current flavor is. But the world is not Manichean.

The purpose of human inquiry is to describe what we can of the world. Among the tools to that end are science and religion; two spheres that continually try to enlist the insights of each other.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a tool to force minds into the Manichean straitjacket. Humans will either learn to transcend that or we shall destroy one another, not because our behavior has gotten worse – it has in fact gotten better – but because the means to do harm have gotten so efficient.

The American political system—a representative republic based on democratic ideology—is a very advanced method of dealing with that central issue of living with difference, but it is not the only method. Another was the Great Law of Peace, and if you know that story, you know it’s not the first thing the Six Nations tried. And even if those were the only methods possible now, cutting off inquiry by selling the falsehood that it’s already determined is a recipe for cultural decline.

I share the majority opinion that WWII was a “just war.” Still, that does not justify or excuse Dresden, and to point that out is not to claim moral equivalence with the Nazis. It’s to describe the world as it is rather than how we wish it were in preparation for changing that part we can influence.

Notice the content of the false outrage over the President’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast, a tradition we could only wish a POTUS could break. As long as he was there, he tried to say something.

Every Indian I’ve consulted about it thought Obama let his own religion off way too easily, but he’s being roasted for alleged “false moral equivalence” because he dared to say out loud what the atrocities of ISIS, slavery and Jim Crow, the bloody conquest of the Americas, and the horrific violence that caused the partition of what had been Gandhi’s India all had in common – a faith based rationale.

This is the same POTUS who used a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to attempt a defense of “just war.” Elect a professor and you get a professor.

I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to defend “just war” myself because of what I know of war up close and personal. I suppose one implication of recognizing “just war” is that, while the world is not Manichean, there can be short-term advantage in pretending that it is. Perhaps I should not complain too strongly of the pretense in some situations, because the need of extraordinary measures to pump up young men for homicide is a good thing.

“Human nature” is a contested discourse that has changed over time, but one known fact at least since WWII is that the gross disparity between number of shots fired and the number of humans hit is not entirely the result of poor marksmanship but rather of an individual neck deep in hive behavior still functioning as a free lance moral entrepreneur.

Individual moral entrepreneurship is a problem if we are having this conversation at West Point.

As I think the Cree poet Buffy Sainte-Marie was getting at, in the real world, robust personal morality is not the problem, it’s the answer, but an answer discouraged by the Pledge of Allegiance.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.