Patriotism across the pond

By Ben Griffiths

Most Americans these days would be able to identify Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of my home country, but many might find it difficult to recognize any other politicians from Britain.

Let me introduce another to you. Gordon Brown is Britain’s second most prominent politician and some argue that since he holds the keys to the treasury, he is Britain’s most powerful man. He is widely tipped as the next Prime Minister of our country, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if we see him on the White House lawn once Tony Blair hands over the reins of power. Mr. Brown has recently hit the news back home because, perhaps with one eye on his future bid for leadership, he has begun the new year by recommending that Britain set aside one day of the year to celebrate its “Britishness” – rather like how America celebrates its emancipation from “Britishness” on the Fourth of July.

Mr. Brown would prefer it if we became more unashamedly patriotic, since such sentiments, in his eyes, are wholly progressive. The integration of cultures and the celebration of diversity is the type of progress he is talking about. Whatever personal motives he might have, Mr. Brown is trying to encourage cultural cohesion, and – after the terrorist attacks in London last July – that cannot be a bad thing. The uneasy reality of the atrocities was that the young men who attacked Britain and everything it stood for were British themselves.

The British flag was singled out as something which could inspire “tolerance and inclusion,” according to Mr. Brown. Certainly, the Union flag was originally devised as a celebration of the merger between the Scottish and English crowns, but the modern-day reaction to such symbolism is a peculiar one to identify. It perhaps invokes memories of the past more than it inspires a vision of the future – and for that reason somewhat negative connotations can spring to mind. For some reason, it is the ultranationalist British National Party that comes into mind when I think of the message the Union flag evokes in modern Britain. For others, the flag is more likely a symbol of colonialism and the British Empire.

With the perils of nationalism and imperial dominance now known in Britain, it seems that an uneasy mix of pride and regret is evident when people look back to their colonial past and everything on which “Britishness” is based.

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    But while Britain almost lacks emotion when considering its modern-day national self-identity, America in 2006 is a country split along lines of high emotional intensity. A polarized America is attempting to confront the issues in which recent events have brought to the fore – and left many excluded from the American political system.

    However, in America, the argument is not whether the American flag is a good thing, but rather what positive values it stands for. While conservatives would stress the Christian foundations of America and its record of fighting for noble causes abroad, the patriotic liberal would highlight more the Jeffersonian separation of church and state and espouse a system of government based on the notion that all men are created equal.

    During my time in America, I have noticed that the counter-culture which first came to light during the Vietnam War protests is strengthening. Certain disaffected Americans feel uneasy when faced with issues such as the ongoing Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or the inability of the American government to protect its own citizens during Hurricane Katrina. Maybe this is a sign of things to come. Perhaps in 100 years time, if China has assumed leadership in global economic affairs, and India – for instance with its Bollywood movies – achieves cultural dominance, might the Stars and Stripes be seen in the peculiar light that modern-day Britain now sees its own flag.

    Ben Griffiths is a foreign exchange student in LAS. His column appears on a rotating schedule. He can be reached at [email protected].