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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Making a “Pledge” on MLK Day

King for a day, banished for the rest of the year.

As every president is expected to do on the weekend preceding Martin Luther King Day, Donald Trump summoned his best if little used and far from convincing reading skills to pay homage to the nation’s favorite African-American hero, Martin Luther King Jr. Scanning the paper before him, Trump declared, “We pledge to fight for his [King’s] dream of equality, freedom, justice and peace.”

A pledge is meant to be a solemn affair. But here, in the guise of today’s 3D definition, is what the verb really means:

To pledge:

To make a point of promising in public — because you are expected to do so — what you have no intention of following up

Linguistic note

Every American child knows what it is to pledge something. They do it every day of their academic lives by pledging their allegiance to the flag. And very much like Trump, they mechanically speak the words they have memorized, probably without understanding their meaning and certainly without feeling that they are making a formal commitment.

The syntax alone is confusing and was made even more confusing when President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1954, added the phrase, “under God.”

Here is the post-1954 text: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

“One nation indivisible” sums up the essential purpose of the original pledge, which was to unify the nation after the trauma of the Civil War. Dividing the “nation indivisible” can only appear paradoxical, but that was what the Cold War government needed to further differentiate the US from the atheistic Soviet Union. Parsing the sentence, a strict grammarian might be left wondering what is indivisible: the nation or God? Could Eisenhower be suspected of denying the Trinity by calling God indivisible? Theologians would reassuringly reply that in the mystery of the Trinity, the godhead is indivisible even if there are three persons. So Eisenhower easily avoided the accusation of heresy.

Historical note

Putting aside equality, freedom and justice — for which Trump has never showed a great passion — we may wonder what the president considers to be the best way “to fight for [King’s] dream of … peace.” So what was Reverend King’s dream of peace? Here are some of his reflections on war and peace that Trump could have consulted for his own edification.

Calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, King warned: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” It’s true that he didn’t say America must put an end to war, only mankind. Perhaps Trump imagines that by continuing the various wars still going on and threatening others against North Korea and Iran, this will persuade “mankind” to end their side in the wars and let the US manage the peace.

Assessing the damage American bellicosity has produced, King solemnly stated: “The judgment of God is upon us today … We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world.” Trump might claim that it’s a boon to be isolated from “shithole nations.”

Explaining why he couldn’t limit himself to talking about civil rights as a political issue, King said: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

Recognizing the inability of the current economic system to reduce inequality, King may have understood that the inevitable trend toward increasing inequality was in the nature of the system. “I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in American, and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefullness. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.”

Ten years after the financial crisis of 2008, at a time where inequality has grown exponentially, Trump might have been wise to mention this part of Dr. King’s vision. For some odd reason, he didn’t bother.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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