A little over two decades ago, I signed a loyalty oath. In exchange for employment by the University of California, I pledged to “protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The loyalty oath was a relic of the McCarthy era, and there is an entirely unpleasant episode in University of California history, from 1949-1951, in which non-signers were dismissed. It was entirely clear to me that to HR, the oath was a formality I was supposed to sign in an instant and hand over. But I thought for a long time about whether I could sign it in good faith, “without mental reservation.” In the end, I signed. Allegiance to a Constitution is allegiance to a principle, although I did not foresee the possibility of future amendments with which I might disagree. Allegiance to a flag is trickier — we are taught to pledge it every morning of our elementary school life, although I suspect for many children it is just a succession of syllables that one has gotten right if one has mastered the intonation. (I think Messaien, who notated birdsong, could have gotten a creditable piece out of the raw pitches of the Pledge of Allegiance.)
Loyalty to a flag is the subject of a kerfuffle at my alma mater. Some students in UCI student government patched together and passed a very poorly written piece of legislation removing all flags, but pointedly that of the United States, from a display area. What seemed like an enunciation of principle to them was anathema to others; I think that high in the minds of administrators was the awful prospect of being a Fox News headline for weeks or months. The Chancellor wrote the only letter he could have written, castigating the students and promising more and better flags at UCI “before too long.” Fox News approved. Unfortunately, its viewers did not get the message, and are now threatening the students with death.
Obviously, the students had their principles, enunciated them, and could do so freely — although their bill, once passed, was vetoed by another committee. But the question I have is counterintuitive: by choosing to go to a public university, did the students incur any obligation, however small, of loyalty to the institution, the State, or its symbols? If that obligation existed, was it large enough to be given any place in their thinking? Or was their attending UC a consumer choice, like selecting Levis jeans over Wranglers, and where one doesn’t give the jeans a second thought unless one has an unusually positive experience? Is attending a state school — the only Federal colleges and universities are military — any different in its requirements on the conscience than attending a private school?
The University of California has done its best to make the relationship between it and its students purely commercial. Its financial exactions on students are so great that there can be no reservoir of good will out of which loyalty might spring. Instead, students hand over their money (whether their own or the banks’), wash their hands, and move on. In exchange, say the Governor and the President, they will get a meal ticket to capitalist society. It is a quid pro quo transaction all the way; I can foresee a time when you can buy that meal ticket directly without the hindering formalities of professors and classes. As for the human emotion of loyalty, if it should still exist, the University has subcontracted its handling to its athletic department and its alumni association, both of which are here to extract still more money from students.
Because of this economic relation, which stunts the emotional relation, where can one find loyalty? In a world where the Presidentially lauded STEM disciplines do not, in fact, lead to jobs as a certainty — think of engineers after the “peace dividend,” or computer programmers deracinated and displaced by hungry H1-B visa-holders — is there really even an economic contract between student and university?
So, I think that there is a generational gap between me and the drafters of the anti-flag bill. Even before I signed the loyalty oath, I had a sense that the University had given more to me than I could possibly give it in return. If the United States and the State of California made it possible, I owed something to them. Despite the idealism of the drafters of the flag bill, I don’t think they felt they owed anything to the University, the State, or the United States. Thanks to institutional greed and governmental defunding, the drafters felt themselves to be free agents. That is a heady jumping off point from which to mount a critique — one from which it is too easy to fall.