Mornings when I take Elder Girleen to school, I usually hang around for fifteen minutes for Morning Meeting, a daily occurrence that involves 360 drowsy kids with sleep still in their eyes sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the auditorium for a couple of announcements, a song or two and a factual snippet (such as: what exactly is leap day, what is a primary election, did you know that George Washington Carver invented over 400 things to do with sweet potatoes?).
They also scramble up off the floor for the Pledge of Allegiance, as do all the teachers and any parent-types who’ve stuck around.
I certainly don’t think of myself as the patriotic type. I don’t go to baseball games. In fact, before Elder Girleen started kindergarten I probably hadn’t said the Pledge of Allegiance since I was in elementary school.
But, just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you never forget how the Pledge goes. The hand folded earnestly across the heart! Those words: and liberty and justice for all.
On one hand, it seems so anachronistic, so quaint. But on the other, because of who everyone standing there in that circa 1929 auditorium is (an American) and probably because we all stood in similar settings saying the same words when we were the same impressionable age that Elder Girleen is now (6), I find that I have an emotional reaction to their meaning.
And liberty and justice for all. For the few short moments it takes to say them, I believe.
Are they true or false? Wiser heads than mine are debating that as we speak, and have been doing so ever since they were written. Because of my status as mom,* I’m not going to weigh in on the actual veracity of those words, though I certainly have my own opinion about it.
Some of my first political memories: my mother weeping during the six o’clock news as wives of soldiers missing in Vietnam were interviewed; my confusion between the IRA (who were particularly active right then) and the IRS (who upset my father); adult discussions about assassinations; the way the airing of the Watergate hearings meant there were no cartoons to be watched on TV. Given all that, it would be easy to say I turned out cynical about our country’s political underpinnings.
But peel back the callused skin of every adult American and you might find a child who once stood hand-over-heart and said and liberty and justice for all and believed it.
We tend to forget that as we age. These are skeptical times; they might even be the end times, for all we know. But I would submit that under our cynicism the desire at least to believe in the idea of democracy is practically encoded in our DNA.
*Though motherhood can be a deeply political act, I find that in the day to day of motherhood, talking politics is generally frowned upon: I mean, how can you force yourself to go to a particular play group every week if you know the moms you’re having coffee with LOVE Mike Huckabee? I was with a group of moms I knew socially every morning during the week the Iraq War started — did it come up? Not just no, but hell, no.
Currently, the husband and I are obsessed with the TV show The Wire. We won’t even get into the fact that the pop-culture cognoscenti were first watching, and raving about, The Wire all of five years ago. We don’t have cable around here and besides, five years ago we were too sleep-deprived to follow complex story lines along the lines of The Wire’s. Anyway, now the show’s on DVD so we can watch it every single night. This is lovely from a narrative point of view, sort of like having a long novel that never ends to look forward to every night, but it also colors one’s world view.
The Wire takes a sprawling Dickensian look at life in urban America, and it confirms many of my most-cherished observations about the way the world works: more than half the time the time the good guys are on the take; doing the “right thing” tends to get people screwed; self-interest, power, politics and greed might be the forces that really shape American society.* The framework in The Wire is politics and public safety, but you could just as easily apply its tropes to any institution in American society: white-collar corporations, community organizations, even — dare I say it with a straight face? — cooperative preschools.
But how can those two ideologies — that of the starry-eyed child saying the Pledge of Allegiance who believes democracy is something to be championed and that of the grizzled cynic, who believes that the Will to Power greases the wheels of industry and politics — exist in my body simultaneously?
Bingo. Cooperation and Corporation. The two conflicting impulses that define American behavior.
*For an interesting take on The Wire, click here.