Recently the town council of Eugene, Oregon, faced a difficult and controversial vote. They struggled with a divisive proposal that threatened to incite the community and tear the council apart. One of the council members proposed that they say the Pledge of Allegiance before each council meeting.
A few years ago I spent some time in Russia, part of the former Soviet Union. As an Air Force pilot in the European Theater I figured I might go there someday, but it wasn’t like I anticipated. I flew into the country as a passenger on an Aeroflot airliner, not as a combat pilot in the A-10. My wife and I made the trip to adopt the two girls that we have called daughters for almost five years now. Traveling into former enemy territory to adopt children is an eye-opening experience to say the least.
I found a land still reeling from the lingering effects of socialism and communism that barely operated at a level above the third world, and in some cases definitely performed below third-world standards. I saw the collectives, large utilitarian apartment buildings with crumbling facades. I traveled on roads in such need of repair that I was sure that the richest man is town had to be the mechanic that sold and replaced shocks and struts. I shopped in poorly stocked grocery stores with scarce and sometimes rotting produce. The experience reminded me of some of the South American villages I had seen. It certainly didn’t feel like I was visiting a former world power.
The most dominating relic of the communist reign was the over bloated bureaucracy everywhere we went. We spent hours in dimly lit hallways waiting for our turn in front of some obscure official just so we could get the rubber stamp and go on to the next official. We would enter agencies with our facilitator and find a jumbled mass of humanity waiting for a rubber stamp – no lines really, just a huddled mass of confused and bureaucracy-weary patrons with hollow eyes. A door would open and someone would press forward into the office, and then the door would close to a collective groan. As an outside observer the whole process appeared to be more like the Keystone Cops routine than a functioning government. I longed for the organization of the Department of Motor Vehicles with their please-take-a-number system.
The most notable cultural difference in the process was the lack of humor. No smiles. No friendly banter. No chuckling at whispered jokes. Russians frown on (literally) too much public frivolity. I surmised that it must stem from years of oppression. Why highlight yourself by smiling or laughing if you know they can haul you away in the middle of the night without just cause? Although public displays of happiness are taboo, Russians are very friendly and personable, one on one.
Through all of this I saw a light. Capitalism had taken hold, and it was growing. In Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and even smaller Petrozavodsk, modern stores were popping up. Small businesses seemed to be thriving. Technology was becoming the rage. Women’s fashion (a sure sign of coming prosperity) was a booming business. Economic freedom was invading deep into the heart of the former Soviet Union and setting up shop.
After several long weeks, the appropriate number of rubber stamps on our paperwork, and several thousand dollars (yes, new unfolded twenties and hundreds), we were going home with our two new daughters. We had one last bureaucratic visit – the American Embassy in Moscow. After passing the Marines at the front door, we found a slice of Americana. People smiled and laughed. The process was streamlined and organized. We even took numbers and waited to be called. We didn’t need a facilitator to grease palms so we could move past the mob. It was a welcomed sight.
When we touched down in Los Angeles I wanted to cry, but it wasn’t because of the smog. We were back in the USA! A black woman in a uniform smiled at us as we approached passport control. She chatted with us about our trip. She made jokes with the girls and tried to make them laugh (even though they didn’t understand). When she finished reviewing our packet of paperwork she took us over to another desk with three men behind it – an Asian, a Latino, and an All-American Anglo. They laughed and joked with one another. They teased each other. They helped each other.
I smiled and started to cry. “Can I tell how good it is to be back in the USA?” I said.
I explained that I thought they were the epitome of what this great nation stands for. Each of them came from different ethnic backgrounds and different cultural viewpoints, yet they worked together without evident problems. They laughed and joked with one another. They were efficient and professional. Their diversity was a strength, not a weakness. They carried themselves like a free people unafraid of despots and tyrants. To this day I still get choked up at the contrast between a free people and those suffering from the effects of long-term oppression.
In the end the City of Eugene, Oregon, compromised. They decided to say the Pledge of Allegiance four times a year at the meetings closest to four national holidays. Their courage and patriotism is underwhelming.
I am glad I live in a country where a city council can decide against saying the pledge, or pass resolutions that are intended to undermine federal policy without fear of the gulag. I will shed blood to protect those principles of the Constitution that afford us those freedoms.
BUT I have no respect for citizens so ignorant to the greatness of this nation and its founding principles that they have to debate whether or not to say the Pledge of Allegiance at an official government meeting.
Maybe we should start a fund to educate them. I even have a name for it – One-Way Tickets to Tyranny Ville. Maybe a few weeks in the former Soviet Russia or a month in Cuba would bring them a new perspective. They can pay for their own way back. Enjoy the trip.