Commentary: A flag too far

Sep 24, 2012

Last week the Michigan Legislature overwhelmingly voted to require every public school to set aside time for the Pledge of Allegiance, and to require every classroom to display the American flag. The lawmakers wanted to strike a blow for patriotism.

Unfortunately, they didn’t give the schools any money to buy the flags, making this one more unfunded mandate.

But State Representative Kevin Cotter, a Republican attorney from Mount Pleasant, said cost wasn’t a “legitimate argument.”  School administrators who have classrooms full of hungry kids and not enough supplies, may disagree.

Yet how can anyone come out against patriotism, the pledge and the flag? By the way, why the move to make this mandatory now? The legislature didn’t feel compelled to do this after 9/11. The answer is simple, if a bit cynical. There’s an election in six weeks. Voters aren’t especially happy with the way things have been going, and Republicans are worried about hanging on to their majority in the state house of representatives.

They can’t tell voters that they have fixed the problems of the schools, restored all the money they cut, or restored the Michigan Promise scholarship, because they haven’t.

But our lawmakers can say they made sure kids were saying the pledge. Though the bills were sponsored by Republicans, the vast majority of Democrats voted for them too, and few school superintendents said much against these bills.

After all, you don’t want to look unpatriotic if you want to hang on to your job. There were a few courageous exceptions, however.

State Representative Vicki Barnett of Farmington Hills said while she loved the flag and the pledge, she didn’t support “trivializing our nation’s cherished symbols for political gain in an election year.” This was a case, she said, of “pandering to the electorate for votes instead of tackling the real problems.”

After she spoke out, a few courageous school superintendents came forward. Up in Marquette, one said the money she would now have to spend on flags could be better spent on desperately needed new furniture and technology, even crayons. In Bay City, Superintendent Doug Newcombe, told the Associated Press, “I’m all for patriotism, but why are we spending time on this kind of stuff? With all the issues facing us in our society, is this the most important thing we’ve got to deal with?” He noted that the lawmakers are demanding he put more dollars in the classroom. Now, if he has to buy flags, “it’s a cost I can’t spend on something that maybe I really do need.”

By the way, most public school kids have been saying the pledge all along I grew up saying it every day, hand over my heart in my elementary school classroom at the height of the Cold War. Most of us mumbled it as an incantation without thinking about what it meant. One kid used to get in trouble for mocking the words. 

Though he wasn’t a classroom patriot, he later enlisted and got killed at Hamburger Hill. Personally, I’d like to salute Representative Barnett for having the guts to oppose these bills.

We shouldn’t forget that since 1776, American patriotism has meant the right to take unpopular stands. Voting against these bills may have been the most patriotic gesture of all.    

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.