allegiance (noun) : (1a) the obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord, (1b) the fidelity owed by a subject or citizen to a sovereign or government, (2) devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause.

Allegiances are tricky things. One way or another, and over and over again, we give our allegiance to something or someone. As school children in the United States we are taught to recite the pledge of allegiance, daily affirming our commitment to a Cold War era set of patriotic ideals. As a beginning point to learning civic mindedness it’s not bad, as far as it goes, and it certainly instilled the basics of patriotism and love of country in me. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it reinforced those virtues. Either way I learned that love of country was a good thing and that the United States was worthy of my devotion.

Another elements in my pre-political formation was my parents. I learned from their words and from their example that this country was a thing to be admired and known. More so than many of my peers I learned about some of the darker chapters in our past. I knew that we had done wrong and that’s America is “an ideal” and “a work in progress”. It’s very important to understand, however, that my knowledge of our flaws was very much in the past tense. My parents—and certainly not my schools—did not teach me about all the bad that was still going on. I was raised in a middle-class family in a mostly white small town in the Midwest, faithfully Catholic, and very sheltered. I knew nothing of the struggles being faced by gays and lesbians as they fought to gain equality. I thought of racism as something that was over and done with somewhere back in the past. The battles between unbridled capitalism on one side and the poor and middle-class and environment on the other was nonexistence. So when I pledged allegiance to our flag and that nation for which it stands I did so without having all the information I needed.

As I grew older and became more politically and socially aware, especially during and after college, why allegiance underwent the same sort of modification that happens to most people. Instead of the unconditional loyalty to the United States as a whole that had characterized my early thinking, I know professed a greater allegiance to my subsets of the spectrum, whether party, ideological group, faith community, or just those who thought like an agreed with me. This was the time when I began to have a much more “us versus them” mentality about socio-political issues. There were also some new elements of bitterness in my thinking regarding the other side of any debate. Maybe it was a greater identification with my issues that led to my increasing antipathy … whatever the cause, I was coming to feel an allegiance to a portion of my country—as I saw it—that I believed could and should be the way the entire place must be.

I continued in this vein for many years, starting a year or two after college and lasting until sometime in the last two or three or four years. Gradually disillusionment began to creep into my thoughts. More and more I began to question whether the United States was a sustainable prospect. I looked at the things going on, at all the political discourse, and had more and more trouble finding hope for things to get better. Even that last sentence embodies a large part of the problem. What I saw as the problems and hoped for as solutions was diametrically opposed to what someone in another part of the country was seeing and hoping for, yet we both called ourselves Americans and saw our way as the only right way. Observing the widening gulf between the elements within the country, and the ever increasing acrimony, I had to question what sort of future existed for the United States.

As a student of history I had plenty of examples to draw upon when considering the mortality of nations. Examples abound all throughout history. With such ample proofs I had to wonder what were the arguments in favor of one, monolithic, United States of America. Was it all about international power? Fear of the loss of our dominance? Tradition? What’s I wasn’t hearing was anything that felt like a really unifying principle. We couldn’t even agree what we meant when we said “freedom”.

I’m saying all of this now, benefiting from the clarity of hindsight, and knowing where I’m going with it, but what was I thinking and feeling at the time? If I was so disillusioned why didn’t I think about moving to another country (I did)? Why didn’t I just leave (I didn’t)? To one extent I did both of those things when I left Ohio and moved to Washington. When I made that 2,500 mile geographical adjustment I was leaving one way of life and entering another. But back to the original question: what was I feeling? I mean, I didn’t want to leave America, did I? What was going on in my mind?

It’s taken me a long time to realize—years—but it was the place I love, and not the idea or nation or government. I love the land and sky, the oceans and rivers and mountains. And that brings me to … now. Hello! Thanks for meeting me here. Where are we, exactly? The answer to that question is big—huge—and will have to wait as I gather my thoughts further. I’ve got a lot more to say.

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