Independence Planet

A cross-post from my LEGO blog Square Feet today.  This seemed appropriate in both places.


It’s quite out-of-the-ordinary for me to be building a Fourth of July-themed LEGO model.

Although I live in the United States, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and American Independence Day is the single US public holiday I’ve had the hardest time getting my heart around.

In all honesty, Britain in 1776 doesn’t look to me like the “tyranny” of you Americans’ popular belief, based as it is on half-remembered childhood school lessons. We had pre-Revolutionary (and later post-Revolutionary) France sitting next door inviting comparison, and besides that the citizens of the American colonies seem to have had in large part a lighter burden than those of the mother country. “British tyranny”, as you so delightfully put it, hardly seems fair.

It’s taken most of a decade now to get past my offended national pride at this seemingly mentally-lazy accusation of “tyranny”, together with my secret fear that you Americans might be still holding a sort of grudge about it all with your closely-held popular memories of your Paul Reveres, your Boston Tea-Parties and your “rockets’ red glare” (from missiles fired by one of our warships, as I can’t quite ever forget).

Really, the Fourth of July is a weird time to be a Brit in America, if you have any sense or knowledge of history. I love America, but I love my homeland too, and it’s difficult to enter into the spirit of a holiday which persists in painting my home country as the villain.

For all that my country of birth and my country of residence are now staunch allies, such that your Red, White and Blue flies proudly beside ours, and the idea that we might be deadly enemies is frankly ridiculous; still, every Fourth of July I’m reminded that it was not always so.

However, in recent years I’ve been far better about not working myself into a frenzy over it in the run-up to the Day itself, finding ways to love America even on the Fourth of July that don’t feel like I’m being subtly asked to reject the land of my birth.

Really, it’s nothing anyone else has ever said or done. This is my own love of my homeland running headlong into the reality that it was that country that those early Americans had to fight to gain their independence. I’m quite happy to celebrate American independence; what I feel sometimes like I’m probably not going to be allowed is permission to love my other country too, even on the Fourth when you memorialise that former enmity.

Silly? Maybe. Weirdly insecure? For certain. Neurotic? Perhaps.

Rather English, though. We never want to impose on anyone; I wouldn’t dream of sounding a discordant note of Britannic pride in the midst of the United States’ birthday celebration. Hence my annual patriotic neurosis.

Really, though, I have been getting better. The War of Independence isn’t exactly current affairs even in the UK where it’s so much closer to 2017 than to 1066, and no-one is asking me to choose sides for battle. I’m gradually realising that it really is a free country (still); I don’t need the nation’s permission to be British even on the Fourth.

And there’s much to love about America, land of liberty, welcomer of those “huddled masses” and home of opportunity and an inventiveness that has blessed the world with so many wonderful devices.

America really is great, and not even Donald Trump can take away that proud legacy.

Hence this build.

A deliberate homage to that famous image of the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima, it uses some of my new red and white LEGO Classic Space astronauts, and my slightly older blue Classic astronaut.

Indeed, the whole build owes itself to the way I had my new astronauts arranged on my son’s LEGO display shelves. Independence Day rapidly approaching, it occurred to me that the visual combination of red, white and blue astronauts was very patriotic. “I’m sure I could do something with that, for this holiday I’m actually beginning to come to terms with”.

Thoughts turned to that famous USMC image, and the rest is as you see.

Have a happy Independence Day, everyone.

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Never Beam Down to the Revolutionary War Wearing a Red Shirt

I keep chickening out of wearing one of my Union Jack t-shirts on the Fourth of July itself. Probably no-one would care or even notice, but it would feel like blowing a raspberry at the whole American Independence thing. Loudly. And there’s always the chance of meeting someone with a little more alcohol-fueled revolutionary fervour than is good for them, and I don’t want to get beaten up or attacked by some drunk redneck over my choice of apparel. If I’m going to get beaten up, I’d like it to be for something important.

But this year I may have found a way to express my own patriotism in a subtler way.

Since my red hair started to darken to its present browner shade, I’ve actually started to look pretty good in bright red.

Red’s a good patriotic American colour, the first of the trio of colours that we both share. No-one’s going to object. Least of all in Texas where it’s also the colour of the dominant Republican party. Look, I’m wearing a quintessentially American colour!

But red was also the uniform colour of the British soldiers during the period of the Revolution. It survives today in the British Army’s dress uniforms, including the Queen’s celebrated Grenadier Guards who are famed for not moving no matter what you do around them to try and distract them. Texas is too hot for a full coat or jacket around the Fourth, even quite late at night, so perhaps a red T-shirt…

I rather like the subtlety. I don’t want to be symbolically making rude gestures at the whole thing, just finding a way to touch base with my own national identity without getting perceived as cocking a snook.

This seems in itself fairly British. An understated but very real pride in our nation that doesn’t have to tell everyone how great we are. Maybe we do just expect everyone to know already, but this is America, and it’s the Fourth of July, and we were the Enemy during the War of Independence. And Americans are more in touch with their history than we are, because they have less of it to remember, and I’m doing my usual Fourth of July thing of worrying myself into a frenzy over the popular perception of my country as it was a mere couple of centuries ago.

Still, who can object to a red shirt? It’s subtle enough. Even a red shirt echoing the red coats of the Crown loyalists. No-one need know except you and me.

Sssshhhhh!

Acts of Remembrance

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them”.

As a child, I seldom had much time for the annual acts of remembrance on the 11th November. It was all pretty far off from where I sat in a high school hall, trying to keep my mind from wandering during the minute’s silence.

It wasn’t that I thought we were doing anything bad, per se. I just didn’t really see all that much point. It didn’t really touch me on a personal level; most kids think on a subconscious level that they are immortal, and my family hadn’t lost anyone in the War.  At least, not anyone I knew about.  World War Two, of course, was “the War”, still, and it was far enough back that it happened before my grandparents married.

We had lists of names up in our high school hall of the boys who had been students that had gone on to serve and give their lives in the two great wars. Once or twice I think they might have even read them out, but they weren’t anyone I knew anything about. For all the connection it all made with me, they could have picked a random page of the phone book. I didn’t get it.

Oh, if pushed I’d probably have admitted that it was a good thing to honour the sacrifices of those who’d given their all in defence of our nation and way of life, but I didn’t have any real concept of what it meant to be a soldier or sailor at war, with the very real possibility of losing one’s life.

Both of my grandfathers were in the Royal Navy in World War Two, and one of my grandmothers was a Wren (Women’s Royal Navy, for the less well-informed). But they were still alive and intact, and none of them talked about their wartime service very much at all. Ever.

It’s only now, years later, that Grandad has actually had his campaign medals mounted so they can be worn, and begun to record some of the stories so they won’t be forgotten.

I don’t think if I’d been brought up in America I’d have been allowed to not really get the idea of remembrance like I did, but America is better at public displays of pride in and affection for its military than Britain is in a lot of ways. Back at Memorial Day I posted about some of the differences between a British Remembrance Day and an American Memorial Day, and I don’t want to rehash that ground now.

All I want to say is that I get it now, and I’m glad we did it, even if I didn’t think all that much of it at the time.

We remember those who made the final sacrifice because they aren’t here with us and their posterity was cut off. We remember them not as a list of strange and funny names, but as the living, breathing human beings they once were. People like us, with families and schools and friends.

We remember their courage in stepping up to serve their country as an example for us, so that should the situation require it of us, we know in whose tradition we stand.

We remember their sacrifice, because by doing so we count the real cost of war, paid in blood as its only currency, because in war people do die, and yet there are some things that are worth fighting for anyway.

Uniting the Tribes

It occurs to me in these days of independence referenda and questions over the future shape and nature of the United Kingdom that we might possibly learn a few things from the example of Biblical Israel. Be aware that I’m not necessarily talking about the modern State of Israel; the two obviously overlap, but there are inevitable differences of structure between a modern nation-state and a Bronze Age/Iron Age tribal kingdom, to say the least.

The ancient Israel of the Bible was a collection of twelve individual tribes that made up a single nation. Initially ruled by Divinely-appointed military-political-spiritual leaders that we have traditionally referred to as “judges”, power was later centralised and formalised into a unitary kingdom, first under Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, and then under David of the tribe of Judah.

This kingdom later divided into a northern kingdom containing ten tribes, known as Israel, or poetically as Ephraim after its most powerful tribe, and a southern kingdom that was centred on and named after the tribe of Judah. But I particularly want to focus on that earlier single kingdom.

It seems to me that there are some fairly obvious parallels. Any ancient Israelite had both a tribal identity and a national identity as an Israelite, and these, at least at the height of the single kingdom, were not in conflict with one another. And that was in an Iron Age context where tribalism was the rule, and if you weren’t one of us you were one of them: an outsider and foreigner. You might ally with them briefly against a larger and more powerful enemy, but they were still foreigners and rivals.

A lot of modern politics seems to inherit this tribal mindset. Our tribes may be a bit larger or more esoteric than those of the Iron Age – nation-states or political parties rather than actual tribes – but a lot of the mentality is the same. It makes a frightening amount of sense of current American politics to view the Republican and Democratic Parties as two rival tribes vying for power, and UK politics is often similar. People sometimes inherit their political allegiances from those of their family or neighbours, and we can identify whole families that all tend to vote the same way.

Alongside our political tribes, we have regional ones, and in the UK, the overlay of the old class tribalism as well. America has its Northern and Southern identities – witness the fact that in certain parts of Virginia, “Yankee” is never said without an expletive in front – and inter-state rivalries like that between Texas and California. Britain has the same sort of thing, not only between its constituent countries, with #ngland seemingly isolated on one side and the Scots, Welsh and Irish on the other, but regionally on down the chain: North and South in England, Lancashire still fighting the Wars of the Roses with Yorkshire, Manchester being the chief rival of Liverpool, Cavaliers and Roundheads, the new immigrants against the old (and if you go back far enough, the English and even the Celtic nations came to the British Isles from elsewhere), and among the various dates of immigrants, Pakistanis and Indians and Jamaicans and Polish and all the rest.

Now, tribalism is not something that’s inherently bad. Common identities are part of who we are as human beings; we are designed and intended to live together in communities, and part of what holds a community together is a sense of that shared identity. In the Bible, God put His people together not solely as individuals in one nation, but in tribes, in clans, in families. Evidently, He’s prepared not only to use it when there’s no other alternative, but even to purposefully use it for His glory.

Reading the book of Judges as a unit gives the distinct impression that the tribes didn’t always get on completely swimmingly. The whole mess with the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 12(?) is the worst example, but you get glimpses throughout. Each tribe more or less does its own thing; in the time of Deborah it’s the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun that do the fighting; the prophetic victory song of Deborah and Barak seems to unveil a certain degree of intertribal rivalry, with the Naphtalites more or less saying “we did it all. Why did none of you other tribes help?”.

And when David becomes king, he does so in stages: first he’s crowned king of his own tribe of Judah, and only later, after more fighting against the other tribes still loyal to the house of Saul, does he become king of all Israel.

After this, their common national identity as Israelites seems to be in the ascendent, and you hear much less about the tribes doing their own thing and fighting one another.

This ancient example seems to say it’s possible to overcome these tribal rivalries. If even a people famous for disputing with one another like the Jewish nation (some of my Jewish friends characterise their people as “two Jews, three opinions”) can manage it, then surely prideful English and fierce Scots can do the same.

In ancient Israel, each tribe had their own identity and blessings that went with it, a character jointly wrought through the meaning of their ancestor’s name (even today, in most of the world names are far more immediately meaningful and significant than the abstruse handles we use in the English-speaking world), the blessings of Jacob and the blessings of Moses.

It might be fun to look at each of these. Tribal identities in turn, but for now, I will just point out that some of these identities seem far more different from one another than our modern ones of Scots and Welsh and Irish and English. So even though the name “United Kingdom seems like a bad joke sometimes, perhaps it’s in the nature of a prophetic name: a God-given identity that we may only see glimpses and shadows of in the here and now, but which paints our true identity in the brush-strokes of Divine purpose.

Some, evidently, are going to view the United Kingdom as a creation of men’s ambition and temporal political accident. It’s not going to be easy to reconcile those viewpoints, yet the alternative is worse – the multigenerational running sore of a Disunited Kingdom held together by political Sellotape and inertia, enough people wanting to preserve a semblance of union to force the whole thing to lurch on, but enough people wanting out to stop it being anything like a success.

That’s not going to be cured by any eventual full independence for Scotland and the rest, either; it just inverts the problem. What do you, as an independent Scotland, do about all of the people who honestly don’t want to be a part of your glorious new nation, because it comes only as a result of the death of the old nation they loved?

Like the adoption of the national identity of the Kingdom of Israel did not eclipse the tribal identities as Reuben and Gad and Simeon and Issachar and the rest, Scotland has never ceased to be Scottish merely because it’s a part of a larger United Kingdom.

As I write this, I’m realising that the same logic holds true of Britain as a whole in the European Union, and I may perhaps have to modify my personal opposition to that would-be nation. At least, the opposition to what I see as “my” country being swallowed by a transnational entity ought to give me some understanding of the pro-independence Scots.

In my mind, there’s a difference between the European Union’s apparent desire to do away with national identities and the desire of the United Kingdom to join without destroying, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that about 45% of the Scots don’t see it that way. After all, we English have always been the dominant partner, and we have our own shameful legacy of attempts to destroy the Scottishness of Scotland and the Welshness of Wales and the Irishness of Ireland.

If we as a United Kingdom are going to reconcile and move forward, we English might have to own our sin as a nation. But equally, our Celtic partners may have to grant that time may change a nation, and that there may even be a way for God to change the contrary and arrogant English.

The book of Revelation paints a picture of heaven in which people from “every tribe and nation and people and language” are gathered together before God to praise Him with one voice.

I’ve had Americans tell me that this means that all of our human tribalisms will melt away and we will no longer be Scots and English and Americans and Russians and Chinese, but all citizens of Heaven.

If you’ll forgive me, this is a very American view of the matter, and not one I’m comfortable with. I don’t want to no longer be an Englishman. And it appears to me that the Bible isn’t saying that. Why call them tribes and nations and peoples and languages plural if they are all one and the same?

I don’t cease to be an Englishman when I follow Jesus; the two are separate identities but don’t necessarily oppose one another. What I see the Bible saying is that all of our tribalistic hatreds and rivalries will melt away. I would continue to be English, and gloriously so, and Alex Salmond would continue to be Scottish, and gloriously so, and there will be no more strife between those identities or domination of the one by the other. Unity without loss of identity.  This is what I see in the Biblical description of heaven, not some strange melting-away of earthly identity but an earthly identity transmuted and hallowed by being caught up in a higher heavenly one.

Similarly, but on a far more mundane and temporal level, perhaps the UK can truly attempt to be like this.  One national identity as Brits, and four national identities as Welsh and Scots and Irish and English, both informing and helping to create one another.  It’s a big dream. But we have to attempt it. It just might be our national calling as the United Kingdom.

A Clash of Patriotisms

(Source:Wikipedia)

I think maybe this year I’m actually mentally ready for the Fourth of July.

I can never quite tell until the day itself, of course. There have been other years during the almost 9 years I’ve lived in the States when I’ve thought I was prepared and then found myself getting uncomfortable. This year, perhaps it’ll be different.

The Fourth of July isn’t Independence Day for me so much as Day of Feeling Weird About My Country.

It’s not anything anyone does, or says, really. Some of my friends will make jokes about it, but if the situations were reversed I’d almost certainly do the same. Some good-natured teasing isn’t going to kill me or harm my country.

No, my problems are almost entirely internal. It’s that it’s a very weird and slightly uncomfortable thing to be a Brit in America on Independence Day.

The American Revolution never even registered on the history I learned at school, but pure mental self-defence has meant that I’ve had to learn about it since coming to the US.

The Revolutionary War looms large in American popular culture. There’s probably no comparable historical event in British popular culture that everyone will immediately gravitate to (World War Two and the Battle of Britain, perhaps, but not even that has the same overwhelming prominence in British national sentiment). What this means is that the war is part of American founding mythology (not in the sense of “untrue” but in the sense of “powerful story”) and consequently is surrounded by a lot of populism, half-remembered facts and lazy thinking.

Being a Brit, and a Brit with some knowledge of my country’s history, I hear some of the American assumed knowledge about the War of Independence and I question. It doesn’t seem to add up.

To give you some examples:

“British tyranny” said like it’s a universally-acknowledged fact. I know what you’ve been told, but it’s difficult to see my country as a tyranny in that period when we have pre-revolutionary France to compare it with.

George III. I’m probably the only one who can still remember the 10-second scene in The Patriot, close to the beginning of the film, in which you see the colonials burning an effigy of King George III. A blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment entirely incidental to the plot, but I can still remember my visceral shock and distaste. That’s my king you’re burning in effigy. I guess this is the reaction of most good Americans to seeing someone burn the Stars and Stripes.

Yes, monarchism really does run that deep in me. And George III is far from the worst king we’ve ever saddled ourselves with. I’d accept the “tyrant” label for a number of others, including Henry VIII, but George III looks more like Good King George than the monster of American myth, even stacked up against some of his contemporaries (Robespierre and the last of the Louises of France show us the true face of tyranny).

My country, the Bad Guys. Ahem. From the perspective of British history, 1776 is a lot closer to 2014 than it is to 1066, and that’s discounting everything prior to William the Conqueror. We could just as easily go back to Julius Caesar’s landing in 50BC as “the start of British history”. By 1776, just about every national institution of government was in place, and in a recogniseably modern form. You don’t think we’re evil bad guys now (Hollywood aside. To them, the English are the only nationality it’s permissible to hate). What changed?

“We Put An End To The British Empire”. This is just lazy thinking. Actually, most of what became the British Empire wasn’t annexed until after the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, and some have seen their loss as providing some of the impetus behind the rise of empire. America didn’t put an end to the Empire. We did that ourselves after World War Two.

Hey, I can’t even hear the US National Anthem without being aware that the “rockets’ red glare” illuminating the Flag came from unguided missiles fired from one of my country’s warships.

Suffice it to say, even without anyone saying anything, it makes the Fourth of July rather interesting inside my head.

I love my country, and I love America too. Most of the time these two loves coexist peacefully, if not in active cooperation. We are, after all, staunch allies, having a close partnership that Britain calls “the Special Relationship”.

And yet at least once a year I’m reminded that we were once enemies.

In purely historical terms, from the American perspective I can understand how George III looks bad. Britain in her imperial days seemed at times to have a peculiar genius for selecting precisely the worst possible people to be colonial administrators, and this was often the case in the American colonies. When all you know about the King is the manner of people he selects as his representatives, well… The rest is history.

Similarly, compared to the situation in France, or even mainland Britain, the American colonials had it pretty good, with an abundance of freedom and relatively low tax burden. But they weren’t comparing their situation with France or the motherland, they were comparing it with the distracted days of the wars with France, during which time the British government didn’t much care what the Americans did as long as they flew a British flag and not a French one. In those days, laws were winked at as often as not, and it’s all too easy to see their subsequent actual enforcement as a crackdown.

I get this intellectually, but it hasn’t helped so far with my emotional reactions to the Fourth of July.

This year may be different. I may yet forgive the city of Boston for its criminal waste of perfectly good tea and come to a place of peace. But when so much of American popular patriotism references the Revolutionary War, it’s difficult to put down my crown loyalist defensiveness and enter in.

Dulce et Decorum Est

For me, Memorial Day (this Monday, for the benefit of my non-American readers) is one of the more familiar and “normal” of American public holidays. A day to remember those who made the final sacrifice in the defence of our freedoms.

It’s honourable and right that we should do this.

We have something similar, but it’s on the 11th of November, and you don’t get a day off from work. We call it Remembrance Day, but it’s in essence much the same idea.

The expression is rather different, though, or at least, it appears so to me. Remembrance Day is solemn, reflective, sombre. The laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. The wearing of poppies in memory of blood shed on the poppy fields of Flanders and in a million other conflicts since. A minute’s reflective silence. The old words of remembrance:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

By comparison, Memorial Day is a party. A day off work, and the traditional beginning of the summer period. Flags and parades. Marching bands. Salutes to living veterans and our heroes in the armed forces.

It can be a little disconcerting.

Part of it is just the natural and normal difference between our countries. Americans are very good at throwing national parties. Brits tend to be pretty good at dignified public events. We are seeing what we ought to expect.

But it got me thinking about what else it might reveal, and particularly about differences in our attitudes to war and the military.

Now, I can speak for neither America as a whole nor all of Britain, but from my observation there’s a case to be made.

Even some of our historically greatest generals have made some pretty morose comments about the supposed glory of war. My particular favourite is from Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, defeater of Napoleon, and a man with whom I share a birthday: “Next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle won”. People die. Good people. It’s such a waste.

When I was growing up in Britain, we studied World War I poetry in English Literature class. Practically speaking, this is because it’s relatively easy to interpret and thus to teach. I guess it’s a good way to introduce poetry to small minds, but the net effect is that any sense of glory in military heroism is forcibly ground out of you. You are invited to mock the naiveté of Rupert Brooke, who managed to maintain a sense of love for his country, unlike the properly melancholic and cynical Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

In contrast to the cynic Owen, Americans, by and large, don’t believe that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is the lie he claimed it was. At least in Texas, the military have a far higher profile than they do in the part of Britain I grew up in, and gereral approval of military service is sky-high and publically demonstrative. I don’t think I can go a week at any time of year without someone on the radio advertising some kind of special deal for veterans and active military personnel or their families, or some other special event saluting Our Proud Military Service-Members.

If it’s a little alien, in some ways it’s more healthy than the knee-jerk rejection of any sense of honour in military service that Owen and Sassoon tried to engender via my school classroom.

As a child, I mouthed the right cynical words, because that was what all the cool intellectually astute people were doing. But my heart wasn’t in it. Deep down, I believed that Wilfred Owen was wrong.

Not that war was an intrinsically glorious business, or that any particular war was necessarily just or even justifiable, but that despite the tyrant’s plea of “necessity”, there were sometimes real necessities that meant that someone needed to put their life on the line for the sake of the country we love. That there can be virtue in military service, that a hero is a hero because they put their life at risk for the sake of others, and that neither the justifiability of the overall cause nor the competence (or lack thereof) of the commanding generals in any way disparage the honourable service of those who put their lives on the line and who make the final sacrifice.

My high school friends would probably look at me like I was a Martian. It would be ironically apt; Mars was after all the god of battle and warfare. I kept my mouth shut at school, but I’ve actually always felt more kinship with Mars than Venus, metaphorically speaking.

On the other hand, the American practice of Memorial Day seems sometimes to be a form of glorification of war for its own sake. The deep-seated “my country, right or wrong” patriotism of the enchanted. I may be reading it wrong; in fact, as a foreigner from a country who approaches the whole thing from a diametrically opposite angle, it would be difficult for me to get it right. But certainly the United States is a lot more demonstrative and public about loving their military than the United Kingdom. It’s like you’re automatically assumed to be a model of honour and moral rectitude as an active servicemember, whereas among the people I hung out with as a teen, it was almost the opposite. You were assumed to be a violence-loving thug, particularly if you were in the Army.

While America may be in need of a little disillusionment over the glory of war, in many ways I find the way they have made peace with Mars to be better than the alternative. To honour the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms we cherish is right and noble.

The ancients were right, after all. It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.

Matters of Allegiance: A Brit and the Pledge

This post will be a little different to my regular fare, because I’m not really looking at something with much bearing on my Christian faith. It’s something that I have been thinking about again recently, though, and I’ve come to realise that I’m still not really all that comfortable with it.

Without further ado, then, my foreigner’s perspective on the Pledge of Allegiance:

Growing up, I would never have suspected that one day my children would be swearing allegiance to any flag, let alone the Stars and Stripes. I was comfortably British, with the expectation that I’d eventually find some nice British girl and settle down in my home country.

That was before I met my lovely American wife and moved to the States.

It wasn’t that I’d never heard of the idea of the Pledge before I came here. But I never expected I’d really have to deal with it on a personal basis.

“What’s there to deal with?” all my American readers are asking. Let me explain.

I first encountered the idea of the Pledge of Allegiance in what for Americans is elementary school, probably at about age 8 or 9. One of my friends who had older brothers had heard about it, and said that in America, every morning in school you had to “Do a Legion” to the flag, and that you got in trouble if you didn’t.

As you can tell, he didn’t always speak very well (his stock phrase was to refer to “my nuvver bruvver”), but he’d grasped the essence of it.  You stand in front of the flag with your hand over your heart (I think) and pledge your allegiance to it, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible.

I was, frankly, shocked and disbelieving. No, that can’t be true. America is a free country, not some Nazi state. We don’t do anything so unfree, and wasn’t America supposed to be even more free than Britain?

The only image I had for it was pictures I’d seen of people in the Third Reich saluting the swastika. To any American, the two things aren’t remotely alike, of course. But with that as my baseline image, yeah, the idea of pledging allegiance to the Flag was going to be weird. Starting from there, I’m almost guaranteed to take things the wrong way or at the very least feel uncomfortable.

But my kids now go to school in America, which means they do “Do a Legion”. Which means I’d better come to terms with the idea.

To me, the idea of pledging allegiance to your national flag every morning at school is a weirdly jingoistic thing to make kids do. I’d feel uncomfortable about pledging allegiance to the Union Jack every morning – I’d wonder what sort of jackbooted nationalistic dictatorship my country was turning into. I’d feel uncomfortable about pledging allegiance to the Queen or the Royal Family, even as the staunch monarchist that I am. I’d feel like the government was trying to turn my children into good little soldiers of some kind of revived British Empire. Heaven forbid. Aren’t we past that?

It’s not that I don’t feel that allegiance deeply. The reason I won’t become a US citizen is because there’s a clause in the citizenship oath about “renouncing all other allegiances” and I cannot in good conscience raise my hand before God and make that statement. But to more or less force kids to make a public profession of allegiance every morning seems excessive. Like it’s manipulating something sacred for the sake of national gain, or the old “my country, right or wrong” nonsense that can get you into worlds of trouble. The sort of jingoism that I hope we left behind along with the idea that overseas colonial possessions are a good thing.

And to those of you who are objecting to my use of the word “force”, you tell me how a kindergartener is going to find words to object.

Maybe I’m reading more into it than is there, or taking it the wrong way. I recognise it’s something that has near-sacred status in patriotic American culture. I’m not meaning this as an attack on popular Americana, so much as trying to come to terms with something I have no category for.

Probably very few people have even thought about why they said the pledge of allegiance at school. It’s accepted as a given. This is what we do. This is a Good Thing.

It’s only when a strange foreigner comes along and says “this is weird” that we even think about it.

So, Americans. Why? What’s it all about? How should I, as a non-American with American kids, view all of this?