I pledge allegiance … to some guy’s t-shirt

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A few days ago, along with about 500 other people, I said the Pledge of Allegiance to some guy’s t-shirt.

It was not gesture of disrespect. Rather, it was a gesture of resourcefulness and for some in the audience, a necessary show of patriotism

It happened at a community input meeting on a very hot local topic. The issue is whether “wilderness” designations on federal lands should be expanded in the mountains that surround our community. It is a contentious issue. The pro-wilderness expansion people, mostly backpackers and hikers, cite the need to preserve some pristine country for future generations, without the intrusion and disruption of motorized vehicles. The anti-wilderness camp, many of whom are snowmobilers, ATV-users and 4-wheelers, fear the increase in wilderness will keep them from accessing the public lands they love to recreate on.

 It was easy to identify the pro and con people. The pro-wilderness people wore bright green stickers on their shirts indicating support. The anti-wilderness crowd was clothed in white t-shirts with the message “Public Lands – Public Access” printed across the chest.

 Our local congressman, Jared Polis, was hosting the meeting in order to gather input before deciding whether he will introduce a related bill into Congress.

 Feelings have been running strong on both sides of the issue. Polis’ people had the meeting well structured and under control. So it was a bit startling when right as Polis was welcoming the crowd, a fellow from the anti-wilderness contingent interrupted. The man noted that the hearing was a federal government function and demanded that the crowd say the pledge of allegiance.

 Some audience members mostly in the white shirt crowd, erupted into a chorus of supportive “yeah’s.” Some in the green sticker group groaned a bit.

 “Oh, brother. He’s pulling the patriotism card,” protested the well-dressed woman with the soft boice sitting beside me.

 The congressman and his staff were more than willing to start the meeting off with the pledge … but no American flag could be found in the borrowed auditorium. There was some movement in the audience, then some poor middle-aged guy who had a sort of flag printed on his t-shirt was shuffled up to the front of the stage. He stood smiling sheepishly while the crowd stared at his chest, recited the pledge then proceeded with the meeting. The woman beside me remained seated. “I don’t like that forced patriotism stuff,” she explained.

 Did we have to say the pledge in order to make the meeting more official? No. Was any harm done by saying the traditional words? No. Did it somehow make the meeting better, or ensure that the participants were true patriots? No. Were the people who said the pledge better than the people who remained in their seats? No.

 It was one of those manufactured political moments that could have become an issue … but thankfully didn’t.

 I had no problem with saying the pledge, although I felt a bit of sympathy for the embarrassed guy with the flag on his t-shirt. I, too, am uneasy when somebody attempts to measure patriotism by whether a meeting is started with the pledge of allegiance, or whether political candidates wear flag-shaped pins on their lapels. Patriotism is like religion. It can’t be forced.

 This is a great country. I believe that everybody, pro or con wilderness, who gave up a beautiful summer evening to sit in a crowded high school auditorium and give input to a congressman about an issue that is important to them is a patriot. They were practicing democracy.

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