Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself.

In other words, an actor/challenger will not get anywhere politically—especially on a national level—if it only emphasizes its difference from the broader society. The challenger’s opponents will likely already be demonizing and otherizing the challenger. For a challenger to then only proclaim difference—to refrain from appealing to a larger commonality and solidarity—is to play the part of unwitting accomplice in one’s own otherization. It is to retreat into one’s own particularity and concede the wider terrain of the national public. It is to allow one’s opponents to define, own and wield—uncontested—the powerful symbols, rituals, narratives, and commonsense of the larger commonality. It is to eschew politics.

But it does not have to be so. Throughout history, countless political actors/challengers have emerged that have successfully navigated this tension—have struck the right balance—between bonding and bridging imperatives.

To be clear, there are some excellent reasons to be ambivalent about wielding the symbols of our nation. The most obvious reasons are the horrors of slavery, genocide, and war that have been carried out in the name and with the symbols of our nation. Moreover, the core of progressives’ broad appeal is a solidarity narrative based on shared class interest and a common humanity that transcends the boundaries of nation states.

However, the idea of the nation is meaningful whether or not we want it to be. In previous posts I have discussed the construction of the nation as a projection of locally/experientially-rooted group solidarity onto a much larger abstract conception of “group”. Nations are just one form of this kind of projection; other forms include race, religion, occupation, and economic class, among many other possibilities. The nation has been a potent form over the past couple of centuries. It’s an important part of the identities of all of its individual members and member groups. The symbols of the nation are powerful; most people around us identify with them to one degree or another. If we are to be effective as change agents, we need to engage, claim, and contest the meanings of these symbols. To walk away from national symbols out of an understandable distaste for nationalism is, I believe, to let our opponents—who are often openly xenophobic—monopolize these powerful symbols and wield them for their ends. It is to allow our opponents’ meanings for the powerful symbols that signify a collective to go uncontested. It is to let them assume the role of narrator of our national story.

Typically, conservatives are not at all ambivalent on this matter. They do not hesitate to wield national symbols. In fact, they attempt to monopolize them — so that the values that conservatives imbue symbols with become the only acceptable interpretation. Conservatives truly believe themselves to be the rightful owners of America, the flag, the military, Christianity, everything God and everything country.

I’m not suggesting that we mirror conservatives’ authoritarianism or reckless nationalism — or that we start chanting “USA! USA!” at rallies. But this is our country too. And the meaning of a given symbol like the flag is not a fixed thing. If a symbol is powerful and most people around us identify with it, then by all means it behooves us to claim our rightful share of it — and to strategically contest its meaning.

Immigrants who wave the American flag at immigration reform rallies are doing just that. Their opponents wield the symbol for exclusive, oppressive, xenophobic purposes. Immigrants’ and their allies’ use of the same flag imbues it with meanings of inclusivity and social justice. This contestation helps to shift the national narrative to a story of a “nation of immigrants” with open doors. Yes, one might reasonably raise all sorts of factually true points about how the United States is not and has never been a welcoming nation. And if you are a history teacher, that’s at least part of what you should teach your students. But if you’re trying to win allies to build pressure to make change that is meaningful in millions of people’s lives, then you need to tell a story that opens up possibilities, that encourages people to identify with the best parts of their national history, and that invites them to step into their best selves — as part of a public that means something different than the public framed by our fearmongering opponents.

One response to “Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation”

  1. […] Relates to my post: Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation. […]

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