I’m a liberal, yes, but I am also a fan of our Pledge of Allegiance. I recite it with gusto when called upon. I especially love those last words, “…with liberty and justice for all.”
To me, this phrase encapsulates three elements woven together to form our nation’s political fabric: A love of liberty, a devotion to justice and the rule of law, and an understanding that these principles apply to everyone. They embody our national purpose, a unique national identity that calls us to a higher standard of excellence.
The Pledge was first written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a minister who preached a populist form of Christian socialism. His purpose was to encourage a sense of patriotism in American youth, but also to help the nation heal from the still-seething divisions of the Civil War. The words “one nation, indivisible” were a fundamental part of its early appeal.
There’s an inherent contradiction, however, within the last phrase: Conservatives generally, and the Republican Party in particular, emphasize the “liberty” part of that equation think “free-market capitalism” and laissez-faire economics. In contrast, liberal Democrats put the inflection on “justice.” We work to enhance economic, racial, ethnic, and social equality that are fundamental to basic fairness.
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Sometimes, in our quest to enhance personal liberty, we sacrifice justice and fairness: The wealthy wield excessive political power and use it to their advantage. At other times, in our search for justice, we sacrifice liberty; we’re willing to live with systems of police surveillance and monitoring that were unthinkable only a few years ago.
But the last two words of the Pledge are definitive: Regardless of our partisan identification, or how we define “liberty” or “justice,” we can all agree that we want those basic values “for all.” Both parties, and all political ideologies, should agree that the Pledge, the flag and our national identity belong to all Americans. But these days, partisan ideological rigidity prevents agreement even on the fundamental question of just who is an American.
Earlier this week, the attorney general of the United States, Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, came to California to announce a lawsuit against our state’s “sanctuary” policies. He has unleashed his Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to round up undocumented immigrants virtually everywhere and without distinction, and he wishes now to force our business community and state and local law enforcement officials to cooperate in these sweeps. In Sacramento, Sessions announced that California cannot “secede” from the Union; he invited us to visit the battlefields of Gettysburg or the tombs of Abraham Lincoln or John C. Calhoun, with their mute testimony of the folly of secession.
What unmitigated gall for Jeff Beauregard Sessions to suggest that his lawsuit bears any relation to the noble cause of our Union in defeating the evil cause of Southern secession. We can surmise with great confidence how this former Alabama senator would have voted on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which forced the local officials in the “free” northern states to return escaped slaves to the “lawful owners” in the South. What fundamental difference is there, after all, between the 1850 law and Sessions’ brutal campaign to round up immigrant families, break them apart, incarcerate them for months and even years with no due process rights, and deport them summarily to countries to which they have no allegiance nor any remaining cultural or economic ties?
What febrile hatred of people of color motivates Sessions to this action? Yes, he was the first Senator to trumpet the call to his fellow white nationalists and closeted Klansmen to support the Trump campaign — but by now, he has become the laughing stock of the Cabinet, enduring withering criticism from the Tweeter-in-Chief on a regular basis. Surely he owes no allegiance to the Trump Administration; why would any man with a shred of self-respect remain in his position? The only explanation lies in the extreme rate at which top White House staff are fired, indicted, and/or leave with their tails between their legs in humiliation. Perhaps a regular browbeating by the president merely “comes with the territory” for anyone who tries to hitch their wagon to this Executive Office train wreck.
Make no mistake: Trump and his henchmen are trying to rid California, and the nation, of our immigrant population — not just “illegal” immigrants who in most cases have broken no laws other than our complex and duplicitous immigration codes, but to dramatically reduce future LEGAL immigrants as well. These efforts are opposed by every humanitarian and civil-liberties group, and increasingly by the business community as well. Even the California Farm Bureau recently announced their opposition to the Trump administration efforts to curtail immigration, given our state’s dependence on their labor for our highly specialized agricultural economy.
The Pledge of Allegiance, recited by immigrants and native-born Americans alike, can provide us with meaningful guidance as we consider the appropriate response to those among us who lack the pedigree of citizenship or legal residence: They aspire to liberty just as we do; they deserve justice as much as all of us.
John Ashbaugh is a former San Luis Obispo City Council member who teaches U.S. history and global studies at Hancock College. He is among the writers who will fill in for liberal columnist Tom Fulks over the coming weeks.