Nationalism And Expressive Forms Research Paper

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Nationalism is a complex, often problematic concept for social scientists. But among existing definitions of the term, one finds three critical areas of agreement. First, the rise of nationalism is historically specific. Nationalism emerged in the late eighteenth century, appearing first in Europe, then in North and South America. In the twentieth century, nationalism spread to many Asian countries and to the new independent nations of Africa. Second, nationalism exemplifies an ideological movement, promoting the autonomy, unity, and sovereignty of those gathered in a single territory. A nation’s citizens are believed to be joined not by ethnicity, but by a single public culture and a set of shared political goals. Finally, nationalism evokes a strong collective sentiment. While ruling elites may sow the first seeds of this fervor, it is argued that all citizens come to experience a shared collective identity and to embrace a common national purpose. (Calhoun 1993 or Hutchinson and Smith 1994 offer thorough discussions of nationalism.) The third element of nationalism, a strong collective sentiment, provides the focus for this research paper. This research paper explores the most powerful expressions of nationalistic sentiment—a nation’s symbols. The sections which follow highlight the ways in which national symbols bring nationalism alive.

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1. National Symbols: The Nation Made Real

Ostensibly, national symbols may seem little more than calling cards by which nations identify themselves to one another. But closer reflection reveals that national symbols accomplish much more. Just as a weapons objectify feelings of anger, or romantic musical interludes objectify feelings of love, national symbols concretize the highly abstract; they make tangible the subjective nature of the nation—its moods, desires, and goals. Historian Michael Walzer (1967, p. 194) writes, ‘The nation is invisible; it must be personified before it can be seen, symbolized before it can be loved, imagined before it can be conceived … national symbols provide a starting point for such political thinking.’

One can think of national symbols as modern totems. Like the signifiers of the primitives, these symbols merge the mythical, sacred substance of a collective with a specified, manifest form—one that is grounded in the everyday experience of sight, sound, or touch. By blending subject and object, national symbols move beyond simple representation. In a very real sense, national symbols become the nation. Recall Durkheim’s (1915, p. 251) observations: ‘The soldier who dies for his flag, dies for his country; but as a matter of fact, in his own consciousness, it is the flag that has the first place.’

2. Symbols As Expressions Of Nationalism

As tangible entities, national symbols become the perfect vehicle with which to rally the citizenry. These symbols take on various social functions that heighten the experience of nationalism and facilitate its shared expression.

2.1 Crystallizing National Identity

National symbols vivify nationalistic sentiments by crystallizing national identity. In this regard, Anthony Giddens (1985, pp. 216–19) identifies national symbols as the content of nationalism. These symbols establish the distinctiveness, the cultural autonomy of a population. They become the basis of a unique conceptual community.

To accomplish crystallization, political leaders give national symbols high exposure. Governments equip official institutions with national flags and emblems. Anthems, mottoes, and pledges of allegiance are taught in the primary grades and recited daily through the completion of secondary education. In many nations, citizens sing the anthem or salute the flag at the onset of concerts, sporting events, and other public assemblies. Political leaders often erect national monuments and designate historical sites. Such areas commemorate past strengths or sufferings of the national body. Citizens are encouraged to visit such sites and share in the sacred ideals that they enshrine. Often, national leaders create special holidays that revolve around such shrines. For example, each April, the Japanese celebrate Yasukuni Matsuri, a holiday during which citizens are encouraged to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine and honor Japanese soldiers who died for their country (Gregory 1975, p. 153). On Memorial Day in the United States, flowers and flags decorate the gravesites of military casualties, with citizens engaged in parades or memorial services designed to honor the dead. By interjecting national activities into the routine calendar of events, national leaders disrupt citizens’ individualistic orientations; they refocus citizens on collective life and recharge their nationalist sentiments.

2.2 Nationalism Through Bonding

National symbols can inspire nationalistic sentiment by creating bonds between citizens. This bonding power emanates from the symbols’ sacred nature. As citizens join in veneration of the symbol, individual interests become secondary to those of the nation. Collective reverence toward national symbols brings individuals out of themselves and into communication with others. At such moments, national symbols bind citizens in a shared consciousness, liking them despite differences in wealth, social standing, power, or age.

‘By uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gestures in regard to these (symbolic) objects, individuals become and feel themselves to be in unison’ (Durkheim 1915, p. 262).

National anthems can unite citizens every time they are performed, bringing citizens together (physically and/or mentally) in patriotic communion. During World War II, the BBC promoted this goal, airing weekly broadcasts of the Allied Power’s national anthems. European listeners (numbering in the millions) reported a strengthened resolve and increased camaraderie after hearing such broadcasts. In targeted nations, the broadcasts reportedly increased citizens’ nationalistic fervor (Mead 1980, p. 46). A similar phenomenon can be witnessed when citizens sing the anthem or salute the flag at the onset of sporting events or international competitions. In attending to the symbol, a seemingly disconnected crowd is momentarily united as they collectively applaud their national essence.

National heroes also bond citizens in ways that intensify nationalistic sentiments. Heroes become civil deities capable of uniting citizens in common beliefs. For decades, Vladimir Lenin served this purpose in the Soviet Union. Ironically, his death best marks the initiation of this power. As a man, Lenin was admired, but as a symbol he became the paste of a society. A posthumous tribute in the Soviet Newspaper Pravda highlights the point: ‘Lenin lives in the hearts of every member of our party. Every member of our party is a small part of Lenin. Our whole Communist family is a collective embodiment of Lenin’ (Pravda, 23 January 1924, quoted in Lane 1981, p. 216). In passing from life to death, Lenin transcended the rigidity of observable human behavior. Thus in death, his image is freely molded to suit the evolution of each nationalist cause. Barry Schwartz (1987, 1996) documents a similar phenomenon in researching American heroes such as Washington and Lincoln, Schwartz argues that, in life, these men were undeniably important. But in death, these men became divine and extraordinary. Images of Washington and Lincoln have effectively drawn millions together in ‘a moral communion.’ The commemoration of these heroes becomes much more than the celebration of men. Rather, it defines and personifies the nation for which the men stand. In the moral communion of which Schwartz speaks, these heroes become the common food, the mystic substance that unites citizens in their experience of the nation.

2.3 Nationalism Through Honor

National symbols heighten nationalistic sentiments when they are used to honor the efforts of citizens. The process creates a symbiotic relationship between the living nation and the symbolic nation. Valorous citizens breathe life into the symbol by providing concrete examples of that for which the symbol stands. At the same time, the efforts of ordinary citizens become basked in the symbol’s sacred aura. During the moments in which citizen and symbol are linked, the nation becomes ‘real.’ At these moments, nationalism becomes a lived experience.

Nations honor citizens in a wide variety of arenas. In world competitions such as the Olympics or the World Cup, nations honor winning athletes by playing their national anthem and hoisting their national flag. Similarly, nations welcome military victors against the backdrop of their national anthem and flag. To commemorate their bravery, nations decorate military heroes with medals that display their nation’s symbols. When citizens die in service of their country, nations drape the national flag over their coffins to signify their heroism. Nations memorialize patriotic sacrifice with national monuments: L’Arc de Triomphe in France, the Volkerschlachtdenkmal in Germany, the Lenin Mausoleum in the Soviet Union, and the Vietnam War Memorial in the United States. National holidays also serve the honoring function. Jose Marti Day in Cuba honors the famous patriot and his struggles (January 28). Tomb-Sweeping Day in Taiwan honors the nation’s dead (April 5). Matilda Newport Day honors the Liberian patriot and the ideals for which she fought (December 1). In all of these examples, national leaders light the fires of nationalism with the best and strongest of the nation’s citizens.

2.4 Symbols And Patriotic Action

National symbols often generate deep emotion. In so doing, these symbols can motivate patriotic action. National symbols become what Durkheim called a ‘rallying center’ for citizens. They can spur nations to victory and comfort nations in defeat. They can buoy citizens and heighten their resolve when national resistance must be sustained. As such citizens fights to protect their symbols just as they would fight to protect themselves. In such fights rests the supreme expression of nationalism.

National leaders recognize the motivational power of national symbols. They often create or adopt such symbols with motivational goals in mind. For example, in 1792 Mayor Dietrich of Strasbourg directed composer Claude-Joseph de L’isle to ‘produce one of those hymns which conveys enthusiasm to the soul of the people’ (Sousa 1889, p. 99). The result was La Marseillaise. When the tune made its way through France, it was credited with motivating volunteer battalions to descend on Paris (Nettle 1967, p. 69). In a similar way, Philippine General Emilio Aguinaldo implored native musician Julian Felipe to write an anthem that would rally his fellow Filipinos against the forces of Spain. When the battle was over, the General believed that such an anthem would further solidify the new Philippine regime. Each time it was heard, the song would rekindle the patriotism and loyalty that secured victory (Nettle 1967, p. 168).

In many nations, national martyrs become motivational symbols. Although prominent when alive, such individuals can become inspirational after death. They stimulate deep emotional commitments— commitments that often lead to extraordinary action. Consider Filipino activist, Benigno Aquino. While living, Aquino and his followers energetically opposed the Marcos regime. Yet, only after his assassination (August 1983) were Aquino’s followers able to effectively unite and oust Marcos from power. Similarly, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla preached revolution to the Indian peasants in Mexico for years. Yet, only with his execution in 1811 did his words gain the power to trigger the 1814 insurrection.

2.5 Symbols, Nationalism, And Legitimacy

Strong nationalist sentiments are contingent on the legitimacy of a nation’s authority. National symbols play an important role in establishing and maintaining that legitimacy. When nationhood ensues, flags, crests, mottoes, and other national symbols facilitate nationalistic sentiments by finalizing an entity’s new status. For example, when over 100 nations celebrate an Independence Day, they institutionalize the birth of a national entity. Similarly, the inclusion of a nation’s flag at the United Nations marks the acceptance of a new, full-fledged member in the ‘national club.’

Symbols also legitimate changes to an established nation’s internal authority structure. During such transitions, symbols are often recreated or altered so as to reify the shift in power. For example, upon declaring independence, Venezuela added the phrase ‘19 de Abril de 1810—Independencia; 20 de Febrero de 1859—Federacion; Republica de Venezuela’ to its coat of arms. By linking the independence movement to the past history of the arms, the new Venezuelan government was more easily woven into the existing national identity (Mucha 1985, pp. 38, 176, 181). Similarly, changes made in 1991 to the Croatian national flag became a powerful signal of the nation’s new independent status. While part of the Yugoslavian republic, Croatia’s national flag displayed a large red star over a red–white–blue tricolor field. At independence, the government replaced the red star with five small shields representing different parts of the country (Crampton 1992). In this way, Croatia downplayed its communist past and presented a new self-study.

National leaders sometimes use national symbols to cloak their policies in a nationalistic sentiment. By merging their persona and plans with the nation’s symbols, they seek legitimacy for themselves and their administrations. It is not surprising, then, that when rulers address their nations, national symbols are often central to the setting. The US President frames his public addresses with the national flag and our national emblem, the eagle. Portraits of Mao Zedong still provide a backdrop for the addresses of many Chinese leaders. Heads of state often have a song, seal, or flag which becomes a permanent accompaniment to their presence—Hail to the Chief in the US, The Royal Fanfare in Iraq, or the President’s flag in Gabon, Korea, Liberia, Peru, etc. National rulers often are honored on the country’s postage stamps or national currency. Leopold III, for example, was commemorated on Belgian coins. The accession of Jigme Wangchuk was depicted on Bhutan’s currency. Jawaharlal Nehru could be found on certain Indian coins. Francisco Franco was pictured on Spanish currency. Combining leader with symbol renders the leader the standard bearers of all that the nation’s citizens value and believe. Leaders, like symbols, become the subject of nationalistic fervor.

2.6 Bottom-Up Nationalism

When symbols are used to crystallize identity, create bonds, honor, motivate action, or legitimate, their ability to spur nationalistic sentiment travels downward through the social system. The power of symbols is directed from those that govern to the governed. Conversely, when symbols become tools of popular protest, the general public takes command of them. Such conditions present popularistic or ‘bottom-up’ expressions of nationalism.

Bottom-up nationalism is most likely to emerge when leaders and their constituents become glaringly divided. When leaders violate the public trust, citizens may reclaim the nation’s sacred symbols and return them to ‘virtuous’ hands. French resisters, for example, utilized this strategy during the Second Empire. While Napoleon III outlawed La Marseillaise, deeming it too dangerous for public consumption, resistors embraced the anthem anew, resolving to forward it as a reminder of revolutionary ideals. These citizens sang La Marseillaise at both underground settings and public protests. In this way, the anthem was dubbed the ‘true’ nationalist message, directly challenging the official government position (Mead 1980, p. 54). The American flag served a similar role in the ‘Bonus March’ of 1932. Throughout this protest, American veterans consciously cloaked their grievances in the American flag. They carried the flag during rallies; they posted it on their temporary settlements. The flag became aligned with the veterans’ fight. By taking command of the flag, the veterans placed the formal government leaders in opposition to the will of the people. Thus, when President Hoover ordered federal troops to forcibly evacuate the veterans, millions of Americans were aghast. Physical attacks on the veterans represented attacks on the flag, and thus, antinationalist actions.

Bottom-up nationalism often involves the juxtapositioning of symbols. In such cases, a ‘grass roots’ symbol is positioned against one strongly promoted by ruling elites. In this way, citizens force a confrontation between what ‘is’ and what ‘should be.’ Chinese students in Tiananmen Square used the Goddess of Democracy in this way. This 35 foot sculpture, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, sat in opposition to a massive portrait of Mao Zedong. Juxtaposing statue and portrait pitted democracy against communism. The strategy initiated a new nationalistic surge in the face of old routines.

When the schisms between national leaders and their constituents become severe, the general population may actually reject its nation’s symbols. Under such conditions, the role of national symbols can change significantly. The symbols, like those who control them, become the target of protest. Thus, the expression of nationalism can involve some form of attack on national symbols. For example, during the 1989 revolution, Romanian protesters frequently cut the Communist ornament from the center of the nation’s flag. This attack symbolically aborted the reigning leadership, leaving room for the general populous to reclaim its nation. A. Codrescu (1991, p. 67) a journalist and Romanian exile, wrote ‘It is through that hole that I am returning to my birthplace.’ Recent independence movements in the Baltic republics (1990–1) involved similar attacks. In Lithuania, citizens danced on a toppled statue of Lenin. In Russia, plans were made to dismantle Lenin’s burial shrine. Defiling these symbols crystallized citizens’ rejection of the standing authorities. Further, the unity and intensity that characterized such attacks located the center of nationalism in the hands of the people.

3. Designing Nationalistic Expressions

National symbols represent the most powerful expressions of nationalism. Consequently, one might expect that the design of such symbols would be grounded in each nation’s unique, indigenous characteristics. Research shows that a nation’s indigenous characteristics can indeed govern the selection of symbol content—i.e., the particular notes or lyrics that appear in an anthem, the particular colors or emblems chosen for a flag, etc. Yet, when one studies the structure or design of national symbols—i.e., the way in which notes are combined to create an anthem melody, the ways in which colors and shapes are combined to create a flag design—the influence of a nation’s indigenous characteristics prove far less important.

Cerulo (1995) conducted a detailed study of the creation and adoption of national anthems and flags. She explored the different factors that guided the selection of symbol content vs. symbol design. Her research suggests that symbol content forwards the ‘raw materials’ of a nation’s identity. As such, content generally is guided by each nation’s unique cultural history. In contrast, symbol structure represents the strategy or ‘voice’ by which nations choose to express their essence. In reviewing the more than 180 anthems and flags currently in existence, Cerulo showed that variations in such strategies of expression are a ‘supranational’ phenomenon.

Some nations choose to express their identities via basic structures—designs built upon concise, restricted forms of expression. Other nations express their identities using embellished structures—elaborate, dense, and complex forms of expression. Differences in structure are systematically linked to the broader social conditions from which symbols emerge. Those creating and adopting national symbols locate their nations within certain economical, political, and social ‘maps.’ They then choose their strategy of expression with reference to those who share similar locations in these domains.

For example, a nation’s economic position within the world arena is related to the structure of its anthem and flag. Nations at the core of the world system— those with the greatest power and resources—favor very basic symbol designs. In contrast, nations that lack wealth and power adopt symbols with highly embellished designs. A nation’s political system (authoritarian vs. democratic) is also associated with the structure of its anthem and flag. While nations with authoritarian leadership favor basic, sparse symbol structures, nations with democratic systems tend to adopt more elaborate, embellished structures. Specific social events surrounding the adoption of symbols impacts symbol designs as well. Events that unify the collective in a common focus—i.e., independence movements, nationalistic periods, victory in war, etc.—prove to be associated with the adoption of basic symbol designs. When symbols are adopted during periods that fragment the population’s focus—i.e., bloody coups, economic depressions, lost wars, natural disasters, or revolutions—embellished symbol designs are favored.

The patterns identified here should be thought of as norms of symbol design. Cerulo’s work explains the ways in which a core economic location calls for the adoption of basic symbolic expression; she outlines the ways in which a democratic political structure presents the expectation for embellished symbolic expression, etc. Further, her data suggest that nations who violate these expressive norms in creating and adopting anthems and flags often find themselves with symbols that fail to fully connect with the citizenry. When symbol structures fail to conform to design expectations, citizens often disengage from the symbols.

This line of research presents an interesting thesis. All national symbols are used quite similarly in the expression of nationalism (i.e., crystallizing national identity, bonding and honoring citizens, motivating patriotic action, legitimating the nation, or providing citizens with a means of protest). Yet, the specific design of national symbols can make them more or less effective in achieving their goal. When it comes to the expression of national identity, where a national audience ‘comes from’ (i.e., its cultural roots) may be less important than where that audience ‘is’ (i.e., its experience at the social moment during which symbols emerge). Put another way, the ultimate ‘success’ of national symbols may be more strongly influenced by a citizenry’s community of experience than to its community of record.


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