Rally ‘round the flag: patriotism and dissent

If 2016 was the year many of us came to resent politics, 2017 looks set to be the year we start doing something about it. The year has begun with a spate of protests around the world, from the local to the international and addressing huge range of subjects, from LGBT rights and gender equality to environmental concerns and economic disparity. The global Women’s March on 21st January attracted millions of people around the world and represented the largest day of protest in US history. In Romania, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Bucharest, where demonstrations initially protesting weakening corruption laws have since grown into some of the country’s largest ever anti-government protests. Other demonstrations have occurred in Nigeria, Venezuela and Bahrain, to name just a few.

The protests in Bucharest presented a colourful spectacle thanks to the many red, yellow and blue tricolours waved by the demonstrators. The Romanian flag has made a prominent appearance throughout the rallies, with thousands of protesters even forming a giant national flag one night by shining their smartphones through coloured film.

The stars and stripes, too, were prominent during the Women’s March on Washington, jostling for attention amongst the pink pussy hats and, shall we say, eye-catching placards. The mood was captured in Shepard Fairey’s now-famous ‘We the people’ poster, which featured a woman wearing an American flag hijab.

The flag has also served as a rallying point in other countries. In May 2016, a movement known as #ThisFlag, led by 39-year-old pastor Evan Mwarire, arose in Zimbabwe in protest of the rising unemployment, spiralling cash crisis and longstanding corruption consuming the country (only two months earlier, president of 29 years Robert Mugabe announced that $15 billion of diamond money had simply disappeared from the nation’s coffers). As its name suggests, Mwarire’s protest movement makes heavy use of patriotic imagery, its supporters often draped in the nation’s flag. In a country where the government is quick to blame ‘the West’ and ‘foreign forces’ for all its ills, from hyperinflation to illegal poaching, it seems highly unlikely that #ThisFlag would have gained any traction were it not determined to embrace patriotism and paint itself as distinctly Zimbabwean, wearing flag-coloured trainers as it calls compatriots to ‘make Zimbabwe great again.’

In a similar fashion, many other protests are eager to strike a patriotic tone to assure compatriots that they are not nation-haters. Martin Luther King, for example, explained his opposition to the Vietnam War as a patriotic standpoint: ‘We who love America must criticise her because we love her.’

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All this is interesting, because it highlights the opposing views these protesters have of their countries. On one level, they are deeply unhappy with the way things are. At the same time, many of them remain staunch patriots, waving the flag and swearing allegiance to the same country they are demonstrating against.

There needn’t be a contradiction here – after all, dissent is often praised as the highest form of patriotism. What patriotic protesters are defending is not necessarily the country as it is, but the concept of their country, the idea that it represents some political and moral project. In the US, this may be ideas enshrined in the country’s constitution; in Romania and Zimbabwe, it may be the slow progress towards accountable and democratic politics. Indeed, it is against this national concept that many people measure the successes and failings of their governments.

The two-country mindset is evident in the language of the protesters, such as this Romanian quoted by the BBC: ‘We came to protect our country against criminals who tried to dismiss the rule of law in Romania; to protect our rights and interests, not their obscure interests.’ There’s a very clear distinction here between the country and its government (or ‘criminals’, depending on your viewpoint). Similarly, Mwarire has been clear to distinguish the nation of Zimbabwe from its current government, which he sees as impeding the country’s progress and development.

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There’s no guarantee that a patriotic protest will embrace progressive politics, however. In England, the St George flag still has connotations of far-right marches, such as those of the National Front and English Defence League – both of which proudly emblazoned themselves with patriotic imagery.

And in China, decades of ‘patriotic education’ have raised a generation so intensely patriotic that the government now struggles to contain the fervour it has created. In 2012, when Japan – the longstanding villain of Chinese history lessons – bought a set of disputed islands in the East China sea, riot police had to be deployed to protect the Japanese embassy in Beijing, as widespread protests throughout China targeted Japanese shops and businesses. Four years later, when Taiwan suggested it would reduce its economic reliance on China, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens launched – without Beijing’s approval or even, it seems, prior knowledge – a ‘virtual invasion’ of the island, posting Chinese propaganda on Taiwanese web pages. Fearing it has stoked passions it can no longer control, the Chinese government is now feverishly backpedalling, censoring chauvinistic online posts and openly criticising the country’s most vocal patriots as ‘jingoists’ performing ‘a disservice to the spirit of devotion to the nation.’ When anti-US protests broke out in 2016 following another international territorial dispute, police and media organisations pleaded for ‘rational patriotism’: ‘This is not the right way to express patriotism,’ stated the government’s Xinhua news agency.

The flag therefore proves a mercurial rallying point for protest. As a call to arms, a sign of solidarity and an assurance of loyal dissent, patriotism and national imagery have provided the answer for people across the whole political spectrum. But as for ‘the right way to express patriotism’ – we’re still a long way from an answer for that.

Photo credit: Babu

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