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Jul 10 2013

Moyers: Pledge of Allegiance is a Lie

I do not recite the pledge of allegiance, ever. I don’t think you should either. And it isn’t just because it says “under God” or because it has clear fascist overtones to it. It’s also because it’s completely dishonest, as Bill Moyers explains far more eloquently than I ever could.

The next time you say the Pledge of Allegiance – “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – remember: it’s a lie. A whopper of a lie.

We coax it from the mouths of babes for the same reason our politicians wear those flag pins in their lapels – it makes the hypocrisy go down easier, the way aspirin helps a headache go away.

“Justice for all” is a mouthwash for the morning after governor Bill Clinton took time off from his presidential campaign to fly back to Arkansas to oversee execution of a fellow who was mentally deficient. ”

“Justice for all” is a breath mint Governor George W. Bush popped into his mouth after that poor Bible-believing Christian pleaded vainly for mercy before they strapped her down to die in that anteroom of Heaven known as the Huntsville State Prison…

Of the $100 billion spent annually on criminal justice in this country, only two to three percent goes to defend the poor. Of 97 countries, we rank 68th in access to and affordability of civil legal service.

No, we can’t afford it, but just a decade ago we started shelling out $2.2 trillion for a war in Iraq born of fraud…

We can’t afford to defend the poor.

Oh, Gideon — fifty years ago your trumpet was a clear, piercing cry for justice, and we’ve turned a deaf ear.

He refers there to Clarence Gideon, the plaintiff in Gideon v Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to provide legal counsel for criminal defendants who can’t afford their own attorney. Unfortunately, that ruling has now become virtually meaningless. Our public defender system is an unmitigated disaster and does almost nothing to secure justice for poor defendants. Of course, the liberty for all line is equally dishonest, for much the same reason.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Not to taunt, but I’ve found that my experience of Public Defender-type attorneys here in Canada has been pretty uniformly good, in that all the times I’ve been in court, I was well-represented by a competent person who had the details nearby. They’re not flawless, but they’re pretty good, IME. My sympathies for folks in the US, as all too often is true.

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    If you remove the “to the flag”, “under god”, and “for all”. It’s not bad. Observe: “I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice.” Okay, it’s pretty gutted, isn’t it? But it’s fair enough. It pledges allegiance to our nation, and lists some of the goals we aspire to. Fair ’nuff.

  3. 3
    ThorGoLucky

    I refuse to recite that fascist ballyhoo too.

  4. 4
    Gregory in Seattle

    The problem is that public defenders get shit for pay: in King County, Washington — one of the busiest county courts in the United States — PDs get paid on a salary scale that, for most, works out to less than the state’s minimum hourly wage. Competent lawyers get jobs with law firms, where they will get better pay, less work and lower stress; intelligent people who are not good lawyers leave the field quickly to get a job that lets them pay off their education debt. Then there is public outrage at government paying to both prosecute and defend the accused, which usually ends up with demands to cut the funding of public defenders even further.

    Let’s face it: in America, only the rich can afford actual justice.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    Why would anyone pledge allegiance to a nation? It’s like wearing a t-shirt that says “I obey authority” (that says on the back, “I was told to wear this tshirt”)

  6. 6
    democommie

    I’m not sure why the public defenders in the U.S. perform such a uniformly bad job (with occasional flashes of brilliance) for so many of their clients. I’m guessing that it might stem from the whole system being rigged against the Poordarkother-O-Perps. Isn’t the public defenders’ office something that is funded and controlled by the various states’ AG’s with federal block grants or some similar mechanism? If it is (and I admit ignorance in the matter) then “Hang ‘em High” prosecutors are going to do what they can to gut the opposition prior to engaging them in the courtroom. Someone with a legal background (Yeah, I AM lookin’ at you, Ben P.! {;>) ).

    Other than that there is always the shitty pay which is compensated for, in part, by the long hours, thankless clients and judges who have full calendars–or early evening tee-times.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    I don’t remember who wrote this, but I learned this when I was in high school in the early 80s:

    I pledge allegiance to the Flag
    of the Fascist States of America
    and to the plutocratic autocracy for which it stands;
    one theocratic nation,
    full of division by race, class and gender,
    with liberty and justice for all who can afford it.

    In the 30 years since, it has gone from being a rebellious slap meant to provoke conservatives to an honest statement that doesn’t go far enough.

  8. 8
    slc1

    Re Gregory in Seattle @ #4

    I can’t speak for King County but for someone planning to enter the field of criminal defense work, a public defender position is a good way to get some trial experience in a short period of time. As a for instance, Judge John Jones III of Dover fame started out in a public defender’s office.

  9. 9
    democommie

    Should have been:

    “Someone with a legal background (Yeah, I AM lookin’ at you, Ben P.! {;>) ) might be able to help us out with this.”.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    only the rich can afford actual justice

    That’s a funny thing to say. If the rich got actual justice a lot of them would be riding in a tumbril.

  11. 11
    Howard Bannister

    I’m pretty sure that the funding of your local Public Defender’s office is up to the local governmental body, meaning that it really depends on your jurisdiction. Sure, up here in the bleeding-heart liberal part of the country we might actually pay more than a pittance to a public defender, but there are places in the US where it’s seen as a shame to defend “thugs.”

    If that sounds like a racist dogwhistle it’s because it IS.

    Some reading on the structural problems with the US system: What is that local name for Wikipedia here? The fount of all pfffft?

  12. 12
    Reginald Selkirk

    it makes the hypocrisy go down easier, the way aspirin helps a headache go away.

    That is a reallt bad analogy. Aspirin makes a headache go away by stopping the ache. (I presume we’re talking about a normal headache. not a migraine.) So it actually takes care of the problem. Aspirin is wonderful stuff.
    Whereas patriotic jingoism like reciting the pledge does not make the hypocrisy go away, it just inures us to it.

  13. 13
    Sastra

    Well, I usually recite the Pledge (without the ‘under God” part of course) because I see it as referring to the U.S.’s ideals as opposed to its accomplishments. Same thing with the Constitution: we keep measuring our laws against the standards of the principles within it. To me the Pledge expresses something to live up to, goals that need to be shared and familiar.

  14. 14
    Chiroptera

    Huh. Those sound like worship words!

  15. 15
    lofgren

    The pledge is aspirational and affirmational, just like (for example) the Declaration of Independence. It’s not a “lie,” any more than the Boy Scout oath is a “lie” just because the Boy Scouts fall short sometimes, or your wedding vows were a lie just because your marriage hits a rough patch. The United States was founded on several ideals that we have yet to live up to and probably never will completely. The US is one part a group of people who share a landmass, but it’s also a set of moral principles. Just because we don’t always succeed doesn’t mean it’s dishonest to remind ourselves what those principles are and rededicate ourselves to them.

  16. 16
    Modusoperandi

    CaitieCat “Not to taunt, but I’ve found that my experience of Public Defender-type attorneys here in Canada has been pretty uniformly good, in that all the times I’ve been in court, I was well-represented by a competent person who had the details nearby.”
    Judge: “How does the defendant plead, eh?”
    Defence: “Not guilty, your honour.”
    Judge: “Mister or Mrs Prosecutor, make your case.”
    Prosecutor: “We agree with the Defence, your honour.”
    Judge: “Very well. Case dismissed. Now get oot of my court!”
    Defendant: “Beauty!”

  17. 17
    matty1

    I can’t remember who said it but I always liked the argument that in a free democracy the people don’t own loyalty to the government, the government owes loyalty to the people.

  18. 18
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    @16:

    DAMMIT! They told me the records would be sealed.

    Barstewards.

  19. 19
    matty1

    On looking this up I am genuinely surprised that in the free market US the poor are assigned a lawyer who is a government employee while in socialist Britain the legal aid scheme pays fees to a defence barrister selected by the accused.

  20. 20
    Michael Heath

    Gregory in Seattle:

    I don’t remember who wrote this, but I learned this when I was in high school in the early 80s:

    I pledge allegiance to the Flag
    of the Fascist States of America
    and to the plutocratic autocracy for which it stands;
    one theocratic nation,
    full of division by race, class and gender,
    with liberty and justice for all who can afford it.

    In the 30 years since, it has gone from being a rebellious slap meant to provoke conservatives to an honest statement that doesn’t go far enough.
    [emphasis by Heath]

    Even that’s not true. In our entire history there’s been women, gays, non-whites, and religious ‘nones’ that weren’t able to equally exercise their liberty rights or be treated justly, in spite of having ample financial resources.

  21. 21
    dogmeat

    Matty@19

    On looking this up I am genuinely surprised that in the free market US the poor are assigned a lawyer who is a government employee while in socialist Britain the legal aid scheme pays fees to a defence barrister selected by the accused.

    It depends on where the case is being held. In some areas there is an established public defender’s office, in others they do use public funds to hire a privately practicing attorney.

    The problem within our system is that it is left up to the states to determine how they’re going to do it. Those same states that led to the Gideon case lead the way in gutted public defender’s office with no funding and limited access to resources. Add to that, it is politically easy to point to the funding for public defense funds as areas to cut when states implement budget cuts (who wants to pay for those *&@*#&$ criminals amiright?)

    Philosophically it’s the same reason we need to stick to the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty, problem is the whole system is rigged towards the idea that you’re guilty until proven innocent. In the 60s, following Gideon, the funding was far more balanced, in the modern era with rising court costs, expert witnesses and the expense of data based evidence, etc., the funding has shifted insanely towards the state which already had most of the power to begin with.

    Realistically I think it is an authoritarian issue. Generally authoritarians will support the idea that a suspect is guilty because they were arrested in the first place. An authority (I recognize) wouldn’t do something wrong, right? They then have a problem with providing a defense at all, let alone a competent one. Why spend good money protecting a piece of shit criminal? It’s a nice, tight, self fulfilling prophecy. Cut the funding for defense fund, get more convictions, “see, I told you they were a piece of shit criminal.” I see this often in the arguments of my authoritarian students regarding the criminal justice process. They can’t put themselves in the shoes of the accused because they’re a “good person” and the accused is a “bad person” obviously because they were accused. Even when you get to the point where you show specific cases of wrongful conviction they shift to the argument that “they probably got away with something else and likely deserved it.” Even when I point out specific cases where the individual convicted had no criminal record and the fact that two miscarriages of justice are occurring when an innocent person is convicted (innocent –> convicted, guilty –> free) they just shrug and say it’s better to convict someone than let the crime go unpunished.

    All that point I don’t have much to say because I’m usually too ill and chilled to come up with anything coherent.

  22. 22
    calladus

    The idea of the Pledge of Allegiance was originally to boost subscriptions to a magazine called, “Youth’s Companion”, but Francis Bellamy and his boss James Upham got patriotic about it.

    Bellamy considered using the word “Equality” in the pledge, but knew that wouldn’t fly since women were not allowed to vote. (Blacks either – I wonder if that was also part of the discussion?)

    The Pledge also came with gestures that you were supposed to make, including a hand held out to the flag, palm up. But after being taught to kids in Kindergarten, the gestures got sort of confused. There is an online nutjob that makes a lot of hay about photos of this confusion and linking the Pledge to Socialism and Nazis and stuff.

  23. 23
    dogmeat

    Calladus,

    I don’t know for certain, haven’t really researched it, but socialists tended to favor expanded voting rights; being in favor of women and blacks voting wouldn’t be outside the general party platform.

    The amusing thing for me is that the tie to socialism is one of the few things I *like* about the pledge.

  24. 24
    exdrone

    From north of the border, the tradition seemed to me to be a weird loyalty test that school kids had to pass daily. I imagined that, afterwards, teachers would think, “Whew. Safe again.” Of course, we used to sing God Save the Queen in school quite regularly, so we had our chauvinistic quirks too.

  25. 25
    imback

    I saw a documentary last night called Gideon’s Army. It follows a couple of public defenders around. These are some dedicated people. They have ridiculous caseloads, practically work every waking hour, and still practically live paycheck to paycheck. I recommend the movie.

  26. 26
    Chiroptera

    exdrone, #24: Of course, we used to sing God Save the Queen in school quite regularly….

    Heh. Speaking of “God Save the Queen,” when I was a wee tot we used to have to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” every morning. I still think that should be our national anthem.

  27. 27
    had3

    Fwiw, I’m one of those court appointed private attorneys in Virginia. We get paid a flat fee of $120 for misdemeanors, $445 for felonies punishable by a max of 20 years, and $1235 for those felonies in excess of 20 years. There is a supplemental waiver pool for “non-standard” cases that pays a little more, but it runs dry by the 9th fiscal month. I believe we are the lowest or second lowest compensated attorneys in the nation.
    Most of my indigent clients have mental health components that the state system isn’t designed nor funded to handle. Fortunately I have a reasonable retained practice that is standard white-collar stuff (dui’s etc…) that pays the bills. The indigent stuff is actually the interesting cases to work, but it isn’t for the money and if my wife didn’t have a “real job with benefits,” there would be fewer appointed cases that I could handle. On the bright side, my costs are passed on to the clients upon conviction as court costs which must be paid in full (by indigent people) before probation expires(sarcasm). It’s a vicious cycle.

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