Pledges, poppies and Pharisee’s… Barack Obama, the Irish National Anthem and Identity November 30, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Freedom of speech.
Public, or semi-public, expressions of loyalty and affirmation are in the news. The wearing of the poppy as a symbol of Remembrance of the First World War has rumbled through these parts last week in franklittles post. I’m in almost complete agreement with him on this (and while ‘whataboutery’ is bad, still I can’t imagine that we’ll any time soon be treated to an article in the Independent telling us how wearing an Irish Republican Easter Lily is a sign of our ‘maturity’ as a nation and our ability to transcend narrow nationalism). I tend to have little time for the poppy and generally think that UK Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, who didn’t wear it on the television over the last while, has much the right idea.
Interestingly Alexander Chancellor writing in the Guardian a week or so ago disagrees. He argues that:
…remembrance of the first world war remains to this day a powerful stimulant to patriotic feeling. Poppy day, which falls this Sunday, unites the nation as nothing else. While the poppy is now also supposed to commemorate the sacrifices of the British military in every subsequent conflict, it is by its very nature associated first and foremost with that of 1914-18, in which, after all, the greatest sacrifices were made. It is unique among symbols of the kind in that it commands near-universal acceptance. One can even imagine an Islamic fundamentalist finding it perfectly possible to extol the stand taken by the British against the Germans in the first world war.
Despite Jon Snow, whose continued refusal to wear a poppy on the Channel 4 News earned him a letter of congratulations in yesterday’s Guardian, it is generally felt to be above controversy; and its appearance on every BBC staffer’s lapel is not seen, as any other promotional symbol would be, as in some way compromising the corporation’s integrity. I understand Snow’s objections to wearing any kind of symbol on air and his anger with those who would insist that he do so, but it seems to me a pity nevertheless that he should resist participating publicly in such a rare and benign demonstration of national pride. There is not much else that we all manage to feel proud about.
I don’t disagree with him as regards Remembrance – I had relatives who fought in that War. The First World War was a truly horrific event, perhaps in some respects the event of the 20th century in terms of its power to shape the rest of the century both in Europe and further abroad. So Remembrance yes. But remembering what? Those who fell? Again. Fine. Our own record in the Republic of Ireland on Remembrance is patchy. The Garden of Remembrance (commemorating the independence struggle) on Parnell Square is often ignored as is the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Inchicore (which commemorates those who died in World War 1). Thinking about revisionism in history on foot of the Hidden History program the other night one can see how there was a strand of thinking amongst some that all such commemorations were dangerous… hence are near pacifist state identity over the past 30 years.
I don’t, in some ways, disagree with him about the choice to wear the poppy. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The choice has to be there. And here is the thing, does one feel ‘national pride’ about the poppy. Or rather, should one? I don’t intend to enter into the varying complicity of those who participated in the Great War (a strangely hollow term in light of what came after), but this is surely an history which cannot be weighed in a simple fashion. I suspect that as time passes there will be less and less agreement with his statement that ‘it is generally felt to be above controversy’.
Yet, the truly interesting sentence in that piece is “There is not much else that we all manage to feel proud about”.
That has all the impact of a ‘ah-hah’ moment, doesn’t it. Because here we have in microcosm perhaps the motivation of those who believe the poppy is an uncontested symbol. The sense of ‘national pride’ is an engine driving its use.
And this is what makes it so contentious. Because it cannot be both a symbol of national pride and a symbol of Remembrance for those who fell. I’m not instinctively anti-nationalist. Nationalism has virtues as well as vices. But the realities and the horrors were such that ‘nationalism’ is too conflicted in that mix, too difficult to use as an anchor to ‘extol a stand taken by the British against the Germans in the first world war’. Indeed it’s a testament to the duality of nationalism and it’s ability to attract and repel that so much of Irish politics, and indeed the previous sentence, is about finding a balance between it’s positive and negative aspects.
Which brings me to the contemporary. In the United States there has been a viral email which accuses Barack Obama of ‘refusing to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance’.
The reality is that he is shown during the national anthem with – as an excellent piece in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum notes – ‘his hands clasped in front of him, although some consider that a sacrilege, too’.
The widely circulated e-mail seems designed to play upon Obama’s previous public decision to stop wearing a flag lapel pin. To suggest there’s a pattern there. If so, I would say all these pledge-and-pin, hand-and-heart, loyalty-ritual fetishists are misguided about American history, especially the importance to that history of the challenge to loyalty pledges. If it’s a pattern in Obama’s behavior, I think it’s a courageous challenge to conventional wisdom on firm constitutional grounds (however politically self-destructive it may prove in the short run). When was the last time you saw a politician make that trade-off?
This is almost a pharisaic position which is demanded of Obama. And one that is oddly naive. It’s as if to suggest that in the process of singing the Anthem, or pledging Allegiance somehow any duplicity or deceitfulness would be negated – a sort of ‘how could anyone lie at that point?’. Well, people lie at every point. There are a raft of other issues which enter the debate about the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem which Rosenbaum addresses. Issues of the separation of church and state, the religious aspect of the Pledge, the dangers of ‘forcing’ public utterances. These are issues which we on the left feel a particular edge to. As we know leftists tend to be rather individualistic lot, hence perhaps the propensity for splits in our organisations and formations. And interestingly enough when faced with actual instances of ‘collective’ behaviour we tend to be averse to them. That’s a good thing. Then there is the unhappy history in the US in particular of McCarthyism (although in truth considerably less unhappy say than – to take an example at random – the lamentable history of the GDR which, on a tangent, developed a strong residual national identity out of the most unlikely of materials). There is the nexus of religion, domesticity, capital which engenders a near reflexive distrust on the left. And so on.
And Rosenbaum makes a critical point that relates to this:
I certainly feel allegiance, though less to the inanimate flag than to “the republic for which it stands,” but, paradoxically, the moment when I feel most rebellious about that allegiance is when I’m being forced by state or social coercion to pledge allegiance. The America I feel allegiance to isn’t the America that requires compulsory displays of loyalty.
I’ve always felt that way, that the point at which my loyalty is most vocally demanded is the point at which I least wish to give it. In Ireland we have little of the paraphernalia of such observance. I actually didn’t know that the pledge demanded a hand over the heart. To me that seems a little – and I say this in no way wishing to upset those for whom it is pivotal – theatrical. A little ostentatious. And yet it is a tradition and one that has developed. That in itself is not a great argument for its retention, in fact it’s practically no argument at all. Yet it has a meaning.
But note that it is when we are even gently coerced that we are – some of us – somehow detached from our national identity. We don’t stop being American or Irish. But we start to examine or critique that national identity.
My country is dear to me. But how dear and what exactly is the country? It’s not the government, but it is – to some extent – the representative institutions. The physical infrastructure. The place and above all the people. All, needless to say, accidents of birth. But how to parse that out?
One of the things at Croke Park in Dublin during Gaelic football or hurling matches which is unusual is the way in which the end of the National Anthem (sung in Irish at the beginning of each match) is drowned out by cheers as the game commences. Unusual in a way because it seems to indicate that the Anthem is but an interlude, and an unwanted one at that. And yet, even if I find that irritating, and I do sometimes, I wonder if the reality of a true ‘nationalism’ is that it avoids an obsession with the ‘inanimate’ or even the ‘musical’ symbols and instead is lived by its people. That the cheers rather than detracting from Ireland, and Irishness, in some way validate our identity.
That may be an overly optimistic reading. It’s remarkable that even with the lyrics on the large screens around the the stadium there is a certain – hesitancy – on the part of many to sing the words. That’s a pity.
But cheering is easier than singing an anthem in words which are half-familiar to people but not entirely understood. And then we see (or face) other social fears. Astoundingly the primary phobia amongst people is speaking in public. I’ll bet singing in public comes a close second third or fourth. Anthem or no, the process of engaging is difficult. Perhaps more challenging than many would think because the act of singing the Anthem is qualitatively different from chanting during a match. We, or at least most of us, understand that the Anthem is conferred a different sort of authority.
But there is one good aspect of this. Although all are enabled, none are forced. Perhaps that is because the Anthem is in a language which – sadly – is not used entirely widely. That leads to a certain distance – indeed there’s probably a thesis in just how the trappings of the Republic of Ireland, largely forged in the Celtic Revival, led in part to just that distance and detachment.
I believe it is coercion that destroys identity and kills cultural expression. So perhaps the concept of enabling gently is the best way forward. That all are welcome to participate. That that participation may be whole-hearted, conditional or even non-existent.
It’s far from the worst way to forge such identity.