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Councilman Turns His Back; Corvallis Citizen Outraged

by Ron Georg

Corvallis resident Bruce Harmon went to the April 2 Corvallis City Council meeting to share his views on plastic shopping bags (he likes them). Then a bigger threat to freedom than a ban on plastic bags came up, and he had to settle for submitting written material to the council while using his microphone time for this more pressing issue.

“Something has disturbed me that occurred this afternoon that I want to address,” Harmon told the council. “And I think it’s far more important, so I’m going to cede my time with regard to the issue that I was going to talk about.”

What happened the afternoon of April 2nd?

“Councilman Beilstein turned his back to the American flag during the pledge of allegiance, and I was personally offended, and I think he has offended all the citizens of Corvallis,” Harmon said. “I understand that when you are sworn in as a councilman, you take an oath, and the oath is to uphold the constitution of the United States, the constitution of the state of Oregon, and the city charter of Corvallis.”

Of course, none of those documents requires pledging allegiance. In fact, the first two reject the idea of controlling self-expression (the city charter doesn’t have much to say on the subject of personal freedom).

Corvallis City Councilor Mike Beilstein, who represents ward 5, said later that he doesn’t turn his back on the flag, but he does turn away, and he doesn’t offer a pledge. “I do consider it idolatry, it’s sort of a prayer to the country, to the symbolic representation of the country, the flag,” Beilstein said. “This sort of thing, like the flag salute, this ritual pledge of loyalty to a symbol is a thing that is typical of a fascist country.”

Ritualized loyalty is key to successful military service, so it’s no surprise that many vets come away with a deep commitment to the flag. “As a veteran of this country, I just find that behavior absolutely despicable,” Harmon said.

While Beilstein understands how veterans might be more likely to take offense at his stance, he doesn’t reserve much moral high ground for military service. “I would say the United States uses the military to enforce economic policy,” he said. “That’s the purpose of our military. It doesn’t benefit the U.S. people, it benefits the corporations and the rich.”

United States military actions in the past decade have exemplified that purpose, Beilstein said. “I certainly have sympathy for soldiers. There are lots of economic reasons, there might have been propaganda reasons, that got them into it,” he said of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “but the truth is they were there to kill people for the benefit of Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil.”

Beilstein has some obvious complaints about federal policy, but that doesn’t limit his devotion to public service. “I have a different vision of what government can do,” he explained. “There’s no way that we can all be rugged individualists, so I do think there’s a need for organization though civic association like government. A large part of what we depend on for our livelihood is provided, and has to be provided, cooperatively, through government services.”

So he does fly one flag, in the form of a sticker on his laptop—the Cuban flag, which provided the second leg of Harmon’s complaint. “[Cuba’s] the most successful socialist example we have here on earth,” Beilstein said. “All of Latin America is following the lead that Cuba has provided, in saying that we don’t have to let our countries be run by imperialist forces, and that’s what Cuba represents for me.”

He also pointed out that the Cuban flag has its own history and meaning, apart from the current communist leadership. “The Cuban flag, by the way, was adopted as a symbol of the revolution in 1848, so it’s not a communist flag, it’s an anti-imperialist, anti-slavery flag. It’s the flag that was used by the anti-Spanish revolutionaries from 1848 on, before the Spanish were kicked out and it became the national flag.”

Beilstein’s support for the Caribbean nation doesn’t end with a sticker. Every year he visits the country with a group called Pastors for Peace, who organize deliveries of medical equipment to Cuba through Mexico, since the United States still blocks Cuban trade, travel and aid.

“As long as the United States government has this unjust law that says we can’t visit Cuba, we can’t send aid, we can’t trade with them, as long as that law exists I’ll continue to break it,” Beilstein said.

Ironically, Bruce Harmon’s complaints seem to contradict the pledge of allegiance’s commitment to liberty and justice for all. However, these are tough concepts to pin down, and Beilstein allows that some people will object to his views without much subjective interpretation.

“Objectively, I’m offensive to a lot of people,” he joked.

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