South Dakota theologian Anna Madsen reports that when her daughter Else was seven, she refused to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Why? Because she believes in liberty, justice, and God:

...three years ago, on her own, when she was seven, Else (whose middle name, by the way, is my grandmother’s first) announced that she had decided to refuse to say the Pledge.

I was pretty sure that I saw my grandma’s glint in Else’s eyes.

“Why, baby girl?” I asked, trying badly to suppress my glee that already she was rabblerousing.

“Because there clearly isn’t justice and liberty for all. More than that, I don’t think it’s right to pledge allegiance to anything but God” [Anna Madsen, "Pledging Allegiance," OMG Center for Theological Conversation, 2014.01.30].

Madsen reminds us that the author of the Pledge was a Christian socialist selling flags and magazines. We like to cite that history as evidence of the flimsiness of the Pledge as a crucial thread in American patriotism... but maybe those crass capitalist origins say as much about America as the words themselves.

Madsen then emphasizes that pledging allegiance to a flag is not Christian:

...In God we Christian disciples trust (I can’t and shouldn’t speak for Americans as a whole).

That is our primary identity. As Christians we trust in God.

Not in America. Not in America above all other nations.

But in God the God of all creation, which includes, of course, all peoples.

No Others exist in the Christian community.

No.

We are a people claimed by, formed by, defined by the risen Christ who came for all, and by the Jesus who fed, welcomed, healed, forgave, taught, visited, and who taught to give to the poor, to clothe the naked, and to turn the other cheek.

And Christians, by their very faith allegiance, not to mention their name (Christ-ians), become ambassadors, become disciples of this particular way of being in the world…a way that, while on occasion might gel with the nationalistic goals of the United States of America, may also, in fact, preclude them.

That’s nicely radical [Madsen, 2014.01.30].

Our mostly Christian legislators think that pasting God onto a patriotic exercise reinforces both Christianity and America. They are wrong on both counts.

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The Sioux Falls School Board declined last night to require high school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in class. The board's reasoning: the high schoolers are too busy!

“At the high school level, there isn’t always an opportunity to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. They don’t have homeroom, but they do have assemblies, and the principals that were in the discussion with us, talked about the assemblies and how it’s a much more somber moment during their assemblies when every one is in the room,” board member Kate Parker said.

“It doesn’t reflect a lack of our appreciation or respect for all that our veterans do, it’s just the logistics of the high school day” [Beth Wischmeyer, "Board: Reciting Pledge Daily in High Schools Not Practical," that Sioux Falls paper, 2013.11.13].

Bonk! Wrong answer, Ms. Parker. If "not enough time in the school day" were the best reason for not requiring certain activities, we wouldn't have pep rallies, staff meetings on Common Core, or other time-wasting interruptions to the work of the classroom. Heck, we wouldn't even have lunch; we'd just deliver pizza or burgers and fries to the classroom and keep the kids working right over the noon hour, just like a lot of teachers do.

The right answer is that, especially among students approaching adulthood and voting age, the school board should not support compelled speech. The honorable veterans who made time to ask the board to impose this patriotic exercise said all they wanted was "ten seconds a day" to require their preferred form of speech. The brevity of the compelled speech is irrelevant; it's still compelled. It takes me less than a second to say "under God," but it offends my liberty and the First Amendment to require me or anyone else to declare my subjection to a divine entity of questionable existence and intent.

Besides, as we all know, the Pledge of Allegiance is really just socialist propaganda used to sell flags. You don't want your kids reciting socialism for just ten seconds a day, do you?

Alas, no one on the Sioux Falls School Board chose to have that fight last night. The school board also to amend their Pledge policy to reflect the current practice of requiring elementary and middle school students to recite the Pledge every day.

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The flag is a sign of patriotism, a sign of pride in America, a sign—

A flag is a sign, period, says the Deadwood Planning and Zoning Commission, and First Gold's sign was too darn big:

Deadwood Planning and Zoning Administrator Bob Nelson, Jr. explained that in July, First Gold applied for a permit to hang a 15 foot by 25 foot flag on the side of its building during the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Deadwood City Commissioners granted a variance to allow them to put the oversized flag up, but stipulated it had to be taken down by the Tuesday after Rally.

In the meantime, First Gold officials decided that they would like to display the flag from July to September, but were then required to obtain a sign permit in order to do that.

Following consideration by the sign committee, which is part of the planning and zoning commission, the permit was denied [Jaci Conrad Pearson, "Deadwood Designates American Flag as a 'Sign'," Black Hills Pioneer, 2013.08.30].

The Black Hills Pioneer has been getting letters criticizing the city's big-flag ban as a disappointment and unpatriotic insanity. First Gold's owner Mike Gustafson says declaring the flag a sign desecrates Old Glory. Yet the city ordinances reflect deep patriotism: Deadwood sign ordinance 15.32.130.11, which declares that "the flag of the United States of America represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing." Under that declaration, Gustafson should be talking about libel, not desecration. And if anyone burns a flag in Deadwood, they should be charged with murder or assault... or at least cruelty to animals. (Just what kind of life form is a flag: human? sentient? animal? plant?)

That section of Deadwood's sign ordinance continues:

No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America, which includes being used solely for advertising purposes. The flag of the United States of America shall not be placed to call attention to, decorate, mark, or distinguish the building on which it is placed. One flag of the United States of America is considered patriotic, while a string of flags of the United States of America is considered advertising and disrespectful... [Deadwood City Ordinance 15.32.130.11, downloaded 2013.09.25].

Deadwood city ordinance sees a difference between a display of patriotism and a pitch for customers. Note that First Gold (what's more of a living thing, a flag or a corporation? and can a corporation, a legal construct, be a patriot?) originally sought to express its patriotism just during the Sturgis Rally. They expanded their desired display dates to cover more of the prime tourist season. Timing your First Amendment expressions to reach the maximum number of listeners is perfectly sensible. It's also good advertising.

The use of the flag to sell stuff is arguably unseemly, but businesses and politicians wrap themselves in the flag and flaggy logos all the time. Do we really want to get into the messy business of dictating to private property owners what size flags they can fly based on our interpretation of their intentions? As long as a flag, sign, or other expression doesn't pose a hazard to people passing by on foot and in helicopters, should Deadwood or Pierre or Washington be able to say "Take that flag down"?

But if we take First Gold's side and permit them to display a giant flag to express their adverto-patriotism, are we not also obliged to let the protester down the street take a flag off his own pole and burn it while shouting "Down with corporate fascism!" at the casino owners who might drive by?

7 comments

President Barack Obama and Governor Dennis Daugaard told us to fly our flags at half staff yesterday to commemorate the lives lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I'm on record saying our half-staff mania is overdone and misguided. Letting terrorists drive us into perpetual mourning is not as bad as letting them trick us into perpetual war, but it's still a small victory for the bad guys.

Senator Shantel Krebs spent America's official day of forever-mourning sticking her tongue out at retreating Secretary of State Jason Gant. She told David Montgomery that she's always intended to run for Jason Gant's job, that she will formally announce "very soon," but oh, my gracious stars! she would not want to make a political announcement on September 11.

Come on, Senator Krebs. You helped beat some sense into one of your party's biggest liabilities. You can spike the ball; you don't have to dress it up in patrio-piety.

Rep. Kristi Noem had no problem making a political statement on September 11. She twinned her homage to the victims and heroes of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a blatantly political call for more investigation of the September 11, 2012 Benghazi killings. (See also Juan Williams, who said Sunday to a steaming Karl Rove that the Benghazi obsession Noem so nimbly mouths is "all in your head, baby.")

Krebs and hubby's part-time boss, U.S. Senate candidate Marion Michael Rounds, probably spent September 11 making some political statements to high-rolling donors. An eager reader tells me Rounds is in Washington, D.C., this week. At 5 p.m. yesterday, Bellwether Consulting Group was honoring Rounds with a swanky reception on the rooftop terrace of The Willard Hotel and asking for four-figure checks.

See, Shantel? No need to hold back. September is just another day at the office... and the five-star hotel.

Update 09:49 CDT: P&R Miscellany views September 11's "flowery words" and "sanctimonious tributes to the dead" as "maudlin tripe, this psycho-babble bull***t that festoons our televisions and public places as if this is an occasion for a gigantic national pity-party."

3 comments

The Heidelbergers drove down the road and visited Mount Rushmore this fine sunny Sunday in the Black Hills:

Mount Rushmore from trail, May 26, 2013

I'm up to a dozen Rushmore visits now. I have yet to tire of those great faces—the four in granite, and the hundreds in flesh, looking up in wonder at South Dakota's treasure.

A couple big corn-fed college boys were enjoying the view as much as we were. As I aimed the binoculars on the Grand View Terrace for my little one, I heard one of those young men trading cameras to take a picture of a couple from somewhere else and for them to snap him and his pal, as strangers at Rushmore often do. And as he got ready to capture the moment for those strangers, he offered this apt summary of American communitarianism:

We're all here for the same reason; there's no reason we can't help each other out.

Sounds like America to me. Well said, fellow patriot. Thanks for coming to Mount Rushmore... and thanks for helping.

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Well, somebody's wrong in Stanley County. Monday evening, Pat Powers wrapped himself in a couple of rumpled flags to gin up patriotic fervor against an acquaintance's firing. The story ran that janitor Cesar Zakahi got fired by the Stanley County School District for posting photos of improperly stored flags, along with the name of the fellow custodian he held responsible for said improper storage.

While I find flag hysteria as distasteful as public prayer, my underdog sympathies initially wanted to jump on the bandwagon and lend some First Amendment support to Zakahi. But the details as first published seemed to add up to a case that the school would easily win on policy grounds. Mr. Zakahi was a new hire, still in his probationary period, subject to firing for pretty much any reason. By posting a complaint about a co-worker online, he appeared to have violated standard school complaint procedure. (Worth noting: Mr. Zakahi has since removed that damning complaint from his Facebook timeline.)

The Stanley County School District's tongues are tied by the preference not to discuss personnel matters publicly (although I will remind the school board that South Dakota's open meetings law says that you may discuss personnel matters in executive session, not that you must). But the superintendent out in Fort Pierre is putting it on the record that the flag wavers have the story wrong:

Stanley County School Superintendent Don Hotalling says a fired school custodian’s story of how he lost his job in Fort Pierre for posting photos of the American flag being treated disrespectfully is flat out “not true.”

“It’s a personnel matter and I can’t comment on it, but I will say it is not about treatment of the flag,” Hotalling said... [Lance Nixon, "Stanley County School Official Disputes Flag Desecration Story," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.05].

But what about those photos of rumpled flags?

“That picture is pretty nasty and I wholeheartedly agree,” Hotalling said. “All I can say is, whoever arranged that flag in that condition should be ashamed of themselves. But I have no evidence that it was one of our current employees” [Nixon, 2013.02.05].

Local folks don't seem too ginned up. Nobody but roving reporter David Montgomery attended the Stanley County School Board meeting yesterday. The only board action was to issue a statement reinforcing what Superintendent Hotalling said:

“The result of our investigation did not reflect a mishandling of either flag,” the statement says. “We question the circumstances surrounding this matter and whether the pictures currently circulating are an accurate reflection of how the flags were stored. Regardless, we have taken measures to ensure that each flag is properly cared for on a daily basis. The Stanley County School District does not now, nor has it ever tolerated disrespect of either flag” [Stanley County School Board, quoted by Lance Nixon, "Flag Incident Continues at Stanley County," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.06].

I'm disappointed that the school board feels the need to match the blogosphere in its emphatic assertions of patriotism, especially when they appear ready and able to make a case that their personnel action was not about patriotism but about policy.

It might not hurt to remind everyone involved that wrapping oneself in a flag is as disrespectful as wrapping it in a ball and tossing it on a shelf.

But we now have equal and opposite assertions. Mr. Zakahi says he's been fired for being a patriot. His former employer says that's not true. Somebody's telling the wrong story. We'll see if the high-powered lawyer Zakahi's Republican friends have gotten him will clarify or obfuscate the truth of the matter.

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Speaking of schools and the First Amendment, Mr. Powers raises a red flag over free speech rights for school staffers. Cesar Zakahi says the Stanley County School District has fired him from his custodial job for "standing up for the US flag." According to Powers's cuttings from Zakahi's Facebook page, on Saturday Zakahi posted a photo of a U.S. flag and a South Dakota flag rolled up and laid on a utility shelf with cleaning supplies. Zakahi offered the following text:

This is the way my coworker [name redacted by PP] puts out flags away. I work at the park view gym, Stanley County-Schools, she was told to stop doing this, to fold it, she disrespect the United States flag, in this manner because I complained about it, she told me as long as it doesn't touch the ground is the only thing we have to do, she leaves it this way to mess with me, hey face book if enough people call the superintendent of the Stanley County School system, and complain, on Monday she might stop [Facebook text, attributed to Cesar Zakahi by Pat Powers, "This Posting on Facebook Got Someone Fired...," Dakota War College, 2013.02.04]

Around 17:00 MST today, Zakahi posted a brief video purportedly showing the same flags wadded up and laid on some machinery. Over the video, Zakahi texts, "This video is one. Of the reasons I was fired, i reported to mybo".

Way back when I worked summers at Prairie Village, one of my varied duties was to help bring the flag in at closing. It was summer, we were young, and we had plenty of other things to do. Yet as I recall, between putting the weed-eater and paintbrushes away and racing through the Village to lock, I took time to help my co-worker lower the flag and do the proper triangle fold. (Myron Downs would have had our hides if we hadn't.)

Now I work in a public school district (some days, I miss that weed-eater). If I post a critique of a fellow staff member here on the blog, complete with that staff member's name, accuse that staff member of trying to "mess with me," and try to orchestrate a social media campaign to intimidate that staff member into behaving properly, I'm pretty sure my principal will call me in and chew my butt. I might be lucky to get to go back to my classroom just to get my bike, let alone to resume my French lessons.

Gut check: if your office-mate torques you off, do you publish that person's name and tell your Facebook friends to call your boss?

Mr. Powers suggests that Stanley County School District needs a social media policy on which to base its firing. He should back the blog-truck up and look at the SCSD complaint policy, which is pretty standard for school districts. It says complaints go to your building principal first. If that doesn't bring resolution, you go to the superintendent, then the school board.

The text Powers attributes to Zakahi says he complained, but doesn't specify to whom. We can only speculate how much if any of the proper complaint procedure Zakahi followed.

Mr. Powers wants to rev up the First-Amendment engine here (cue Lee Greenwood and PP's invocation of "American troops overseas giving their lives for the cause of freedom"). But if we were arguing a simple case of First Amendment expression that trumps workplace complaint procedures, we'd have to acknowledge that Zakahi's co-worker may claim a First Amendment right to express herself with her treatment of the flag or just freedom from a compelled expression of respect, at which point Texas V. Johnson (1989) will step in and kick the snot out of South Dakota's flag desecration statute.

I impulsively sympathize with folks punished for speaking up. I recognize (keenly, practically, every second I'm in my classroom) the public's interest in making sure we run our schools right. When schools aren't doing the right thing, someone should blow the whistle.

But here's tonight's bedtime question: Does negligent flag-handling constitute a whistle-blowable offense?

36 comments

I haven't rewatched It's a Wonderful Life yet this year, but I get a little verklempt just thinking about it.

I wonder if maybe we ought to show Frank Capra's masterpiece on July 4 as well as Christmas.

Robert Reich gets that Frank Capra was telling us much more than "Merry Christmas":

...we are still in danger of the “Pottersville” Capra saw as the consequence of what happens when Americans fail to join together and forget the meaning of the public good.

If Lionel Barrymore’s “Mr. Potter” were alive today he’d call himself a “job creator” and condemn George Bailey as a socialist. He’d be financing a fleet of lobbyists to get lower taxes on multi-millionaires like himself, overturn environmental laws, trample on workers’ rights, and shred social safety nets. He’d fight any form of gun control. He’d want the citizens of Pottersville to be economically insecure – living paycheck to paycheck and worried about losing their jobs – so they’d be dependent on his good graces.

The Mr. Potters are still alive and well in America, threatening our democracy with their money and our common morality with their greed.

Call me naive or sentimental but I still believe the George Baileys will continue to win this contest. They know we’re all in it together, and that if we succumb to the bullying selfishness of the Potters we lose America and relinquish the future [Robert Reich, "Where Are We Heading—Bedford Falls or Pottersville?" blog, 2012.12.22].

As you watch tonight, think about two of the most jarring parts of George Bailey's otherworld experience. In Pottersville, fear withers and overwhelms Mary. Fear makes her timid and nearly unrecognizable.

And then Bert, the man who in Bedford Falls serenades George and Mary on their honeymoon, opens fire on the friend he does not know. In Pottersville, when a man needs help, bullets fly in a public square.

It's a Wonderful Life addresses faith in God, but it's more about faith in our fellow Americans. It's a call to stand against fear and greed. It's a call to live the Christmas spirit in all of our business and civic affairs.

Watch tonight, 7 p.m. Central on KDLT, 7 p.m. Mountain on KNBN,

15 comments

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