Party Like It’s 1954

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, for the last 2 years, I’ve been an adjunct at a community college, where I teach Intro. to Anthropology. I actually love my job — I love teaching, I love working with the kind of students who go to community college (which kind of student I used to be one of), and I feel it’s the absolute best preparation for whatever job I end up working full-time. That’s not to say it’s easy being an adjunct — the pay is low, I get no benefits, I have virtually no contact with the rest of my department, I do not get to select my textbooks, and I have no assurance of employment beyond the term of my current contract. Which, by some unusual logic of college administration, I generally sign 3-4 weeks after I start teaching each semester.

As of tomorrow, we’re 4 weeks into the semester, so it was time to pop by the department office and sign my contract. This time, however, there was a little something extra awaiting my attention — a loyalty oath. To be taken in front of a notary public. The text goes like this:

I,____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, protect and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States, and the Constitution and Government of the State of Nevada, against all enemies, whether domestic or foreign, and that I will bear true faith, allegiance and loyalty to the same, any ordinance, resolution or law of any State notwithstanding, and that I will well and faithfully perform all the duties of the office of _______ on which I am about to enter; (if an oath) so help me God; (in an affirmation) under the pains and penalties of perjury.

As I stood there, stunned almost beyond speech (I am, after all, a student of Cold War anthropology and McCarthyism), I was told that it was a requirement of Homeland Security, which turned out on further examination not to be entirely true.

The oath itself dates back to Nevada’s statehood in 1864, when, with the Civil War still raging, the question of loyalty was a very live issue. According to Article 11, Sec. 5, “…all Professors in said University, or Teachers in said Schools of whatever grade, shall be required to take and subscribe to the oath as prescribed in Article Fifteenth of this Constitution.” Article 15 spells out the oath above, which is the oath of office in this state. Although the oath has been a constitutional requirement for over 140 years, however, this is the first time I’ve been asked to take it, despite having signed (and fulfilled) 7 contracts with the school before today. So in a way the department secretary is right — for some reason, the oath passed out of practice, and is now being revived, and the only possible reason to revive it is concern about terrorism.

Now, I am not now nor have I ever been a terrorist, and I don’t have much sympathy for those who are (understanding, maybe, but never sympathy). And I’m as committed to the Constitution and the values it embodies as any American, probably more than most. And I don’t have a problem with swearing an oath to defend the Constitution or those values, although as a friend pointed out to me, loyalty oaths have no function except to weed out people like me who object on principle to the extortion of oaths of loyalty. The people who are disloyal certainly aren’t going to balk at signing a loyalty oath! Where I have a problem, though, is to the part about supporting, protecting, and defending the government; sometimes the government does things that I, for one, am not willing to defend, that don’t deserve to be defended.

The Supreme Court would seem to agree with my discomfort. Although oaths requiring allegiance to the Constitution have generally been upheld — and as a public employee, I don’t really have any qualms about being required to act in accordance with the US and state Constitutions under which I am employed — those mandating allegiance to the government or its institutions have generally been overturned, most notably in the case of Baggett v. Bullitt (1964). This case overturned a Washington state law requiring an oath similar to the one required in Nevada, on numerous grounds.

First of all, the Court recognized that professors and teachers cannot be expected to police the activities of their students, even when their teaching may well provide those students with knowledge with which to act against the government.

Teaching and advising are clearly acts, and one cannot confidently assert that his counsel, aid, influence or support which adds to the resources, rights and knowledge of the Communist Party or its members does not aid the Party in its activities, activities which the statute tells us are all in furtherance of the stated purpose of overthrowing the Government by revolution, force, or violence.

Although the Nevada oath is not explicitly anti-Communist (prompting University Regents in the ’50s to seek further loyalty oaths to weed out Communists) , the intention is similar: if I am to take seriously the oath to protect the government from its “enemies, domestic and foreign”, I must adopt a policy of self-censorship to prevent inadvertantly aiding or inciting action against the government, placing an undue burden on my ability to teach.

Secondly, the Court found the language of the Washington oath too vague, and the Nevada oath is even more vague. The Washington oath bound it’s giver to ” promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States of America and the State of Washington, reverence for law and order and undivided allegiance to the government of the United States.” The Court found that:

The oath may prevent a professor from criticizing his state judicial system or the Supreme Court or the institution of judicial review. Or it might be deemed to proscribe advocating the abolition, for example, of the Civil Rights Commission, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or foreign aid.

How much less specific is Nevada’s oath to “bear true faith, loyalty, and allegiance” to the state and federal governments? Am I allowed to question specific laws in my classroom, or to criticize specific institutions? I regularly describe the involvement of agents of the government acting through USAID, the CIA, and the World Bank in creating conditions of poverty and even genocide — can this be allegiance to the government? And what about my activities outside of the classroom — if I protest the actions of the government, which is hardly “supporting, protecting, and defending”, will I be perjuring myself?

Finally, the Court found that the Washington oath, which left all too vague what actions might be considered loyal or disloyal, placed upon teachers and professors a burden which would restrict their First Amendment right to freedom of speech (and, by extension, academic freedom). Because the determination of disloyalty could only be made by the adjuudication of each instance of alleged disloyalty, professors would be forced by their oaths to avoid not only speech they would find disloyal but speech they imagine might be construed as disloyal.

We are dealing with indefinite statutes whose terms, even narrowly construed, abut upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms. The uncertain meanings of the oaths require the oath-taker – teachers and public servants – to “steer far wider of the unlawful zone,” Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 526 , than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked. Those with a conscientious regard for what they solemnly swear or affirm, sensitive to the perils posed by the oath’s indefinite language, avoid the risk of loss of employment, and perhaps profession, only by restricting their conduct to that which is unquestionably safe.

Again, this kind of imposed self-censorship is directly at odds with the requirements of teaching. “[M]easures which purport to define disloyalty,” the Court finds, “must allow public servants to know what is and is not disloyal.”

Loyalty oaths simply cannot function to assure loyalty, and so their imposition demands we look beyond the text itself for its meaning. Although I imagine that administering loyalty oaths makes those who administer it feel like they are taking some sort of action against a vague and unsettling threat, I think it is more fruitful to consider the oath as a display of power. The State is not telling me to be loyal — if they were, they would spell out what explicitly they consider disloyal — they are rather asserting their ability to force me to declare my loyalty. In Baggett v. Bullitt, the Court is clear in stating that one cannot perjure oneself in advance unless I swear not to do specific acts defined in the oath. Under the law, then, I cannot be punished for doing things I now swear not to do, or not doing things I now swear to do, because really I’m not swearing to do or not to do any specific “things”. The oath, then, is not a promise (or threat) of a future act of State power, it is itself the act of State power. I am being constructed by the State as a subject who declares — who must declare — his allegiance to that State.

And I will do it, on the grounds that a commitment to the Constitution implies a commitment to the government thus constituted, which government is a thing separate from — and indeed, often needs defense from — the people who occupy positions within that government at any given moment. In the end, it is not the oath itself that bothers me, but rather the having-to-take-the-oath, the being-asked-to-declare-my-loyalty-which-I’ve-given-no-reason-to-question. And, of course, the whole McCarthian stink of the thing.

4 thoughts on “Party Like It’s 1954

  1. Oneman,

    The absurdity of the oath certainly does not surprise you, and your pedantic meanderings (a blog necessity?) have not been fully digested by my finer concentration, so I may be full of it when I say: so what? I too teach at a CC and while it is my second job, and I harbor no illusions of full-time teaching nirvana nor does the job essentially provide for anything other than my basest desires of materialist lust, I have always sorta found it amusing that anyone thinks that freedom is our birthright in this country. Anthropology being a real science, unlike the fondest musings of my historical brethren, maybe your standards are higher, but it seems to me that freedom exists only in the bravery that individuals act out in defiance of law. Our laws are not, it would seem to me, even in the main about rationality. That centuries of logic and battle have gone into them, and that their finer moments make us feel somewhat good about our ability to conquer injustice and bigotry should not blind us to the fact that most are crap and most serve devils of the most prurient virtue. I say this only to point out that you should be HONORED to have to sign such a loyalty oath because it is WORTHLESS and only has meaning when you break its imagined boundaries. For you are only as free as you are willing to break the laws that bind you to the virtues of the slaveholders. You need not turn this affront into a sublime defense of rationality to know what is wrong and know as well that you (for you are not god) will not live long enough to change the stupefying laws of those who suck at the teats of certainty. You are not on that juice now, are you?

    Respectfully,

    Po

  2. The point of my post wasn’t really about poor old me, but rather about the way that loyalty oaths interact with academic freedom, which is a topic of concern for academics. I had also meant to draw attention to the fact that, given that people who are opposed to the Constitution and/or govt. of the US are, as you note, more likely to sign a loyalty oath than people who are committed to either, that the imposition of such oaths must carry a symbolic load that we, as anthropologists, might find worth looking into.

    That said, allow me to paraphrase one of the greatest political philosophers of our day, Utah Phillips:

    The state can’t give you [freedom], and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free…

    Speaking as a political actor and not as an anthropologist per se, there comes a point when conformity based on a promise of future resistance has to give way to actual resistance. For someone like myself who actually values his word, facing the prospect of taking an extorted oath sticks in the craw, and I could not live with myself if I just did what was ordered and gave up my absolute right to determine my own loyalties. This is not much of an act of bravery, nor even particularly admirable, simply a matter of living up to my own expectations for myself as a member of my community. While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the Foucauldian view of transgression as resistance, it remains the fact that for all his efforts, Foucault himself never managed to find the transgressive act that would make him free to transform society.

  3. Nicely said. Maybe I will never aspire to real resistance, but who wants to change society? Yeah, you, me, other fools and idealists, but as one poli sci prof put it too me, “you can only change the little world around you.” The fantasy that we can change things, or should I say Change Things, is enslaving in itself. For it prevents us from the little things that are truer forms of resistance, in the interpersonal “transgressions” that offer actual freedom. I too would like to hand the heads of the regime to them but then again, when do I face the regime? I wonder if my failure to stand up against laws like this oath really do contribute to our slide toward banality, but I doubt it. Put it this way, I break enough laws to know I am making a positive difference. I will continue to bide my time and if I ever do get a chance to put the lever in the slot that will change the world, I hope my subaltern position will allow me to “pull the trigger.” A crazy hope, no doubt, I will probably stumble and salve myself with a carne asada burrito. But maybe I won’t, and the fact that I have always held little hope of changing the system from within might hopefully allow me to set the charges at the bottom of the damn.

    Fight the good fight. BTW, if Foucault never found the trangression “that would change society” he sure had fun trying. And as you paraphrased it, who would want such power? Me and Jesus I guess.

    PO

  4. UC Berkeley sprung the same surprise on me in the early ’60s, after I had agreed on very short notice to serve as an emergency replacement TA for a summer course offered by the same department in which I had majored for my BA. I agonized over the folly of it in much the same way as you did, but signed the loyalty oath so as not to leave my friends in the lurch. I thought it an act of kindness at the time.

    However, I find that I have never gotten over the shame of signing that damned oath. Though I was and am very far from being a liberal, I still execrate the memory of the despicable regents and politicians who required it of me. By yielding, even out of kindness, I sold a portion of my birthright as a free citizen for a mess of potage.

    You may find yourself in the same place. If so, learn from my sorry example, and do not sign — or having signed, repudiate.

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