The debate was sparked by the recent comments of Dr Tate, the Government's curriculum adviser, about the need for all schoolchildren to be taught their national identity. According to news reports, in the United States saying the pledge of allegiance is supposed to make every schoolchild "feel American".
Saluting the flag did make me feel American, but in a way that would not please the Republican majority of the US Congress, who made the pledge of allegiance an electoral issue in the 1988 presidential campaign and who now threaten to amend the Bill of Rights to ban flag burning.
When I was four years old and entered the local state kindergarten, before I learnt to tie my shoes I learnt to say the Pledge of Allegiance. This was followed by singing "My Country 'tis of Thee", a patriotic song to the tune of "God Save the Queen", but replacing those words with "From every mountainside let freedom ring!" Ask any schoolchild to write down the pledge of allegiance and you will get a plethora of renditions, since four-year-olds do not know what words like "allegiance" mean. Nevertheless, phrases such as "liberty and justice for all" pervade the consciousness of American children.
By 1968, when America was at war with itself, the pledge of allegiance had taken on a different meaning. I learnt that it was my constitutional right not to say the pledge of allegiance. I sat through the pledge, marvelling at the power of the constitution that allowed me to defy my teachers and parents.
The pledge of allegiance became for me a symbol of protest, as would the flag itself in a series of celebrated Supreme Court decisions, including the decision in "US v Eichman", which denied Congress the power to prohibit desecration of this most potent of political symbols.
The pledge of allegiance did indeed teach me what it means to be an American. It inculcated in me the culture of constitutional rights and taught me that being American is about the right to be different and to dissent from authority in whatever form, be it teachers, parents, the church or the government.
Along with most Britons, I have often laughed at the showy patriotism of Americans; I could laugh because my compatriots' flags did not threaten me. The danger of such symbols as saluting the flag or singing the national anthem comes when their meaning cannot be contested, when the government can declare that being American or British has only one meaning.
History and newspapers show that the line between patriotism and the more dangerous nationalism is a fine one. As the US Congress considers constitutionally banning flag burning, the British should take heed and realise that imposing cultural symbols and meanings is playing with fire.
The author is lecturer in public law at Lancaster University.Reuse content