The news last week was dominated by the commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York & Washington on September 11th 2001. During such difficult moments people often try unite around their nations. In this context, symbols of the nation become important. However, such symbols will vary from country to country.
Americans uniting around the US flag
The aftermath of traumatic events such as the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 can be very revealing about a nation. One thing that many foreign visitors notice when arriving in the USA is the number of flags. These are prominent not only in official buildings and the like but often placed in people’s gardens or on cars or in any number of public places.
This is less surprising when you know that the Stars & Stripes flag is the very symbol of the nation itself. In many countries a flag is a mere formal identification. In the USA it is a unifying emblem.
In the US, stars and stripes can be found in the strangest of places
Indeed, so strong is this identification that it is said that by 11am on September 11, Wal-Mart was furiously buying up flags across the entire country. Having always prided itself on the speed in reacting to events, the retailing giant realised that a wave of patriotism would sweep across the nation.
By September 12th other retailers who had not been so quick off the mark, found themselves in great difficulty finding any wholesaler with any flags left. This is undoubtedly great business sense by the Wal-Mart, though I have to confess that the coldness of the action itself leaves me a little uneasy.
The British and the Monarchy
As a diverse nation based on the political reunion of four former states (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) the British find it harder to unite around the Union Jack. Having separate football and rugby teams and yet competing in world championships and the Olympics as Great Britain leaves a lot of ambiguity in the minds of many Brits about the whole nation thing.
Traditionally, the British united around their monarchy in times of trouble. The success of the excellent film, The King’s Speech, highlights this. The future George VI finds himself handicapped by his stammer at a time when the country expects him to speak for the nation. Ironically, it is this period and the invention of media that leads to the demise of the monarchy as a symbol.
“There was a time,” laments George V, “When a king just had to look good in a uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we have to invite ourselves into people’s home and ingratiate ourselves with them.”
Ultimately, this made them an ordinary family just like the rest of us and therefore less pertinent as a strong symbol of what a nation should be. It is difficult to bring detached strength to others when, like them, you have marital problems and your kids are behaving badly in public.
One thing that does remain though. In the UK it is illegal to publicly disfigure anything that carries the portrait of the Queen as it is considered on attack on the nation as a whole. You may have money to burn (lucky you!) but don’t do it in Britain. The late French singer, Serge Gainsbourg, once burned a 500 Francs note on television. Had he tried the same stunt in the UK he would not only have shocked viewers but could have been arrested.
The French and La France as a real person
Being a monarch has been a dangerous occupation in France for the past couple of hundred years (the hours and the pay were decent but you tended to lose your head in the end). National unity has therefore been replaced by the personification of La France. French politicians fill their speeches with reference to La France wanting this or not wanting to do that.
If this were not clear enough, there is even a lady figure, Marianne, that really brings things to life. Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve & Laëtitia Casta have all posed as models for the sculpture. A few years ago, when it became known that the latter was thinking of moving to live in London (for tax reasons) there were outcries from some parts of French society with talk of the symbolic demise of the country if Marianne herself decided to abandon the nation. Fortunately, Ms. Casta eventually decided to stay put, saving the statue from a few marbled blushes.
Symbols of national identity may then vary from nation to nation, but at times of major events they can still play a role in helping people find common ground within their own country. I would be very interested in hearing from people from other countries as to what they consider the strong symbols of their own national identity.
International Affairs in Higher Education