City Hall and the County Government Center on Main Street might only be a few blocks away from one another, but they are different worlds, for many reasons. As the resident government reporter on Second Street, I bounce between those two public planets often, and over the years I’ve noticed the differences. But the most curious one, a contrast for which I’ve been making a mental tally for years, isn’t political — at least I don’t think so — existing in a fraction of a moment at the beginning of each meeting as attendees take a minute to give it up to the stars and stripes.
The ritual of rising and joining together for the Pledge of Allegiance is different. It seems like no big deal, and I don’t think it is, but it’s consistent, like clockwork, month after month. During Winona County meetings, there’s a pause between “one nation” and “under God,” and at city meetings, there is not.
The difference is so minor. But the really curious thing is that it seems to happen every single time, and with different people in the room at nearly every meeting, drawn to the political table for varying reasons, it’s so strange that, in either case, each changing crowd is on board with the way the old Pledge should be recited. To make it even more odd, I have noticed that at just about any meeting I have attended that includes a more rural crowd, be it a township meeting or anything else, the pause is there, silently goading me to figure out what is going on. (This was the case at last week’s Farm Bureau Banquet, an annual favorite of mine, during which the crowd of about 100 all, of course, took a little breath mid-recitation, as I expected.)
I’m a fan of the pause myself, not for any compelling reason other than it is the way I was taught and just, well, feels right. I learned the Pledge in school, in a somewhat urban setting, so it seems unlikely that the differences can be explained by a big city, small town variance. And on a side note, in second grade I heard something pretty swell — that I had the “constitutional right” not to stand and say the Pledge at school, a right I quickly gave a try. That, inevitably, would lead to one of those unique teaching opportunities in which my class would then discuss our rights and freedoms in the U.S., and of course, the lesson would be enough to remind us that because of those rights, it’s not a bad idea to take a minute once in awhile to pay some respect.
That memory might be the reason that I tend to pay more attention during Pledge reciting. I often look around and take note at those who rise and don’t say a word (there are some), and the occasional person who will say all of the Pledge save for the “under God” part entirely (some of those too). And, after years of noting the pause or no pause difference, I decided it was time to do some digging.
I picked up the phone and started calling around to some of the linguistics professors to see if someone wanted to chat about this odd phenomena. Dr. Ethan Krase from Winona State University took a few minutes to talk to me about it last week. He’s a pause guy, too, taught to say it that way back in grade school, and said that in the world of linguistics, groups of folks who have their own preferred expressions and ways of saying things are often called “speech communities.” The differences might have some root or significance, but they might not, he said. “Sometimes these things can be very arbitrary, other times, depending on the specificity of the speech community, you can get increasingly meaning-dependant preferences, preferences that reflect something about a group’s values or ideologies,” he told me.
Krase said that he suspected, as I do, that the differences are probably not really consciously made. (I told him I’d be writing this column and asking folks if they had any ideas as to how this came about, or why, likely the only way to find an answer, if there is one.) But we also got to talking about how it’s sort of uncomfortable to be the oddball in the room, pausing and then trying to catch up or vice versa. For pause-preferring me, I’ve learned to alter the way I would normally recite the Pledge when I’m at City Hall to avoid that discomfort, and Krase said that, in that, there might be at least a partial answer. “Speech communities have a way of kind of normalizing themselves because of that discomfort,” he said. “Really quickly, you fall in step with everybody else.”
There is certainly a bit of Pledge history to be mentioned here, too. The “under God” phrase was added in the 1950s, and it’s been challenged several times as conflicting with the separation of church and state, without success. And there are apparently people out there who think the pause actually changes the meaning of the entire phrase “one nation under God,” backing up their no pause preference with the fact that there is no comma there to indicate a break.
In 2008, Republican Georgia Representative Paul Broun had the opportunity to lead the chamber of the House about the correct way to pledge one’s allegiance: no pause, he insisted.
I asked County Commissioner Jim Pomeroy, who was also the Winona City Clerk for years, what he thought. He’s a pause man, after my own heart. “For me, it’s just a natural pause for profound reverence,” he said, which makes sense to me.