In the United States, public school students are compelled to perform a daily ritual: the Pledge of Allegiance. Students commit themselves first “to the flag” itself, and then “to the republic for which it stands.” It is a solemn act. Hand on heart, gaze steadfast, flag given pride of place at the front of the classroom.
In junior high, my neighborhood friend decided he did not want to salute the flag anymore. This act of noncompliance was inspired by punk rock music; a popular band at the time was called Anti-Flag. While punk rock advocated rebellion for its own sake, it did offer specific critiques: the Pledge of Allegiance was considered a form of nationalist indoctrination targeted at American youth. My friend was quickly punished, with the same sort of discipline normally devoted to hallway fistfights; from a disciplinary perspective, disrespecting a six-square-foot patch of polyester was comparable to an act of violence. Later, after September 11, the American flag would become even more omnipresent and sacrosanct.
By the time of my friend’s boycott, I had transferred to a Quaker school, which was staunchly opposed to the saluting of flags. The ostensible justification was that Quakers do not make oaths of any kind, but it was clear that flag waving was not compatible with the Quaker Peace Testimony. In the local Philadelphia area, Betsy Ross—apocryphally credited as the designer of the first American flag—is still regarded as hero, and her home is a historic site. In Quaker school, however, we were taught that Ross had been formally expelled from the Religious Society of Friends in disgrace for her political views. Her non-Quaker husband died serving in the Pennsylvania militia, and she herself joined the renegade Free Quakers, who abandoned the Peace Testimony and supported the armed revolution. In the eyes of my teachers, Ross’s popularly accepted role as the fabricator of the flag flown by the Continental Army made her the poster child of Quakers who betrayed their pacifist principles in time of war.