Sunday, June 7, 2009

Showing Your Colo(u)rs

This week we discuss Patriotism.

Our guest poster is Sarah, or Brit Gal in the USA, a Brit who found herself living off the beaten track in Oklahoma, where she replaced dodging traffic with dodging tornados.


When I first arrived in Britain, I was astonished that there were no flags flying from the office buildings, private homes, automobiles, baby-buggies, desk caddies (don't laugh, I actually had one in The States) and wheelie-bins. It seemed strange and alien, as if I had landed in some no-man's land.

Like many American's, patriotism wasn't something I was taught, I was imbued with it at birth, as if part of the birthing process includes wrapping you in an American flag (this, in my gender's case, would be just before the circumcision - ouch!) Flags flew from almost every home, we stood and faced the flag every morning, with our hands over our hearts, and pledged our allegiance to it. On the 4th of July we gathered to watch the fireworks while "Proud to Be An American" blared in the background, bringing a tear to more than a few eyes. On Memorial Day we stood proud and watched our soldiers march and then went to the graveyard ceremonies to hear "Flanders Field" read by the local high school valedictorian.

I know this post is about patriotism and not the flag, but to me (and, I suspect, many of my countrymen) they are inexorably entwined. It is so difficult to make my British acquaintances understand how we Americans feel about our flag. It isn't a piece of cloth that represents our country, it IS our country, in the same mysterious way the wafer becomes the Body of Christ during the Sacrament.

The flag is bound up in a myriad of rules and reverence and your patriotism is judged on how well you respect it. This is so ingrained that when some friends and I happened to see two young men lowering a flag by pulling it quickly down the pole, rolling it up and tossing it into the back of their van, one of my friends (a young woman) was so horrified she raced over and gave them a stern lecture, to which they submitted with appropriate humility. You don't fuck with the flag.

I never remember any of this feeling forced, or overtly jingoistic; it just seemed a natural part of my make-up. And it remains so.

Living in a land with no flags and an understated, almost apologetic patriotism was terribly disconcerting. Thank God for the last night of The Proms, when they wave flags and sing "Rule, Britannia!" otherwise I'd think they had no concept of patriotism at all.

As an American, I did what Americans do; as soon as I moved into my flat, I put up a flagpole and hung out the Stars and Stripes. I didn't do it to be different or to be noticed (although it comes in handy when giving directions to our place), I did it because that's what American's do. And now that I'm also a British citizen, I split the year 50/50 between the US and UK flags.

After so long in the UK, however, I get a heart-warming feeling when I visit The States and see rows of flags fluttering in the breeze, but I am beginning to understand why an outsider might view it with just a touch of unease, as if they have wandered into a large and zealous cult.

Brit Gal Sarah:

Moving to the USA in 2005 made me realise how low key us Brits are when it comes to patriotism. I was positively shocked at the level of patriotic fervour shown by my new home country, but I also found it oddly inspiring. In fact I soon found myself being sucked into it, buying patriotic wall d├ęcor for our home and embracing the American flag wholeheartedly. Living here day to day, I think it’s almost impossible not to eventually feel pride, even as an immigrant, in the love of flag and country.

As a British child growing up through the 1960-70’s I remember a time when we were also similarly patriotic. But then sadly it became politically incorrect to show your patriotism with pride. I put this down largely to the government’s determination not to be seen as discriminating against the huge immigrant population now present.

Looking back I particularly remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the whole country was caught up in it, with street parties abound. It was a time of great celebration, flags were everywhere and we were still very much a pro-monarchy country. This was followed within a few years by the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and still patriotism was fashionable, plus we had a new fairytale Princess to make us proud.

But sometime in the late 1980’s Britain started down the slippery slide to a new outlook on patriotism and the rot set in.

For a start both the Scots and the Welsh wanted to be devolved, which you cannot blame them for, but it undoubtedly damaged the Union. All of a sudden there were no longer as many Union Jacks proudly displayed, as we all started reverting to our national flags.

Society continued to change and immigration levels were very high, as our generous welfare system attracted in many nationalities. They brought their own cultures into the country, to the point where now some areas have become mini versions of Poland, Turkey, Pakistan and India to name a few.

Now I am obviously not against immigration, but I do believe that if you want to move to another country, you should make an attempt to integrate and embrace your new homeland as I have. But in England this has not happened, if anything the British get more cynical about the immigrants every year and the immigrants become increasingly insular, forming their home from home communities instead.

Now it seems the only time the Brits get themselves truly worked up into a patriotic flag waving fervour, is when sport is involved. We tend to be a nation of under achievers on the sporting field, especially where football (soccer) our great passion is involved. But give us a big England match to watch and the streets will be empty, the St Georges flags will be everywhere and we will once again unite as a nation.

There is therefore hope that 2012 will be a stunning year for resurgence in patriotism, as the Olympics come to London. I fully expect flag sales to go through the roof and the nation to be galvanised into patriotic passion! But this is more down to our ‘tribal’ mentality of wanting to beat everyone else; it’s the Viking in us, I think, rather than pride in our country and flag.

My grandfather had a flagpole outside his home as I was growing up and he would occasionally raise the flag on it. But he came from another generation and had fought for his country and had immense pride in all it had achieved. But I cannot think of one other person I have ever known personally back home with their own flagpole. Here they are seen in every town, we have one in our yard and just like Mike, we also alternate the flags of our countries on it.

Without some heavyweight icon being brave enough to stick their head over the ‘PC’ parapet and make waves, I see no hope for a lasting patriotism revival in the UK.

As for me, I get all the patriotism I need now in the USA. I regularly stand with my hand over my heart to sing the Star Spangled Banner, or watch with pride as the flag flies behind a lone rider around an arena. And I look forward to a day soon when I will pledge my oath to this amazing country I now call home and become a citizen.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. I think it is very sad that we British cannot be more patriotic without everybody thinking that we are bigoted or racist.
    I would like to fly the St George's flag regularly. We should be proud to do that and I do admire the Americans for their patriotic fervour.
    I so agree that immigrants should be more patriotic towards their new country.

  2. I always associate patriotism more with song than with flags, although I know that started to change post 9/11. But the theme song for my generation was most definitely "I'm proud to be an American"

    And I’m proud to be an American,
    where at least I know I’m free.
    And I wont forget the men who died,
    who gave that right to me.

    And I gladly stand up,
    next to you and defend her still today.
    ‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
    God bless the USA.

  3. Maggie: I agree. My wife keeps telling me people probably think we're BNP bacause I fly the Union Flag for half the year.

    NFAH: (sniff) brings a tear to my eye...

  4. Sorry to rain on this patriotic parade, but one of the reasons I left the US was that all the ostentatious patriotism made me want to heave. I HATED pledging allegiance in school(if the Communists did it they would be accused of brainwashing little children)and as for the cheesy words to "I'm proud to be American", well, yuk. I really couldnt see what we had to be so all-fired proud about, and still dont. As for flying flags on houses, baby-buggies and autos.....what is that all about, some kind of 'I'm more patriotic than you are?' competition?(more idiotic, in mho.)I'm glad to live in Australia where they are very proud of their country but dont have to stuff it down your neck every minute of the day.

  5. As a low key Brit - patriotic pride is more than a flag ,as I'm English with a Scots father and Immigrant stock on my maternal side.It what you do and how you live
    It's voting in the local elections,it's enjoying a cup of tea. Loving and cherishing the countryside.Knowing our history - not just the kings and queens stuff. Just that I've never waved a flag doesn't diminishes the level of my patriotism.

  6. Patriotism in Britain is indeed distinctly low-key, unshowy, indeed quintessentially British. We dont need to wave flags, drape bunting or go in for frantic patriotic boosterism. We feel our love of country in our hearts - simply the best country in the world, the home of democracy, of tolerance, and of the english language which we have given to the world.

    'Oh, to be in England

    Now that April's there,

    And whoever wakes in England

    Sees, some morning, unaware,

    That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

    Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

    While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

    In England - now!'

  7. I think the only time that patriotism gets dangerous is when it's done in a complete vacuum, and that happens on both sides of the Atlantic. People who have never travelled to another country will declare their own country "the best in the world". If you've travelled, and can make a fair assessment, that's fine, but the knee-jerk assertion is annoying.
    The main thing that annoys me here is when I here the USA referred to as "the most democratic nation on earth" (as happened a lot after 9/11.) I know the UK has a monarchy so we couldn't possibly know about democracy, but what the heck do Americans think goes on in countries such as France, Sweden, etc. etc.?

  8. It is interesting how different the various parts of America are. In San Francisco you see more many rainbow flags (for gay pride) than Stars and stripes on businesses and houses. Often people fly both. I was amazed when i went to suburban Florida to visit friends and saw all the flagpoles on homes, since that has not been my experience in the Bay area. But people are still proud to be American in SF, that goes very deep. I remember the day my Chinese born lab assistant got her citizenship. She was so happy and proud. Maybe making the citizenship process a bit more 'ceremonial' in the UK would help give new immigrants the same sense of pride in their new country as I see here.

  9. Oh, oh, oh - in case you haven't heard about my citizenship process. So, we were in the Federal Dirkson building in Chicago in 2002. We were warned to be there at least an hour early and if we were late we wouldn't get in. There were about 500 of us and we duly filed in, sat in our places, and - waited, and waited. About half an hour later, eight or ten people were let in "late". I'm thinking, "why are they so special that they get in late?".
    The judge came in about ten minutes after that, and made a comment about "some people who don't love this country as much as we do". I thought he was referring to the previous year's attacks on New York.
    When the ceremony ended, we all took the lifts/elevators to find all the local press there. "Wow, I didn't realize they made as much fuss about new citizens", I thought.
    However, some idiot had tried to blow up the building with cheap explosives hidden in a back pack. There had been an "incident" hence the cameras.
    And here was I sitting on the 29th floor - oblivious.

  10. Unfortunately, patriotism in the UK will always be blighted by the problem of which country to be patriotic to - whilst people continue to link British or UK patriotism to St George and "Oh to be in England", they will just continue to alienate those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    Let's be patriotic to all those countries, and to their union by getting it right!

  11. >" People who have never travelled to another country will declare their own country "the best in the world". If you've travelled, and can make a fair assessment, that's fine, but the knee-jerk assertion is annoying.
    If this is a reaction to my post (and I dont know how else to take it), I think it worthwhile to point out that I have travelled to 30+ countries (and not in an 'this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium' way) and have also lived longterm in 3 foreign countries, including Indonesia and USA. I think I can claim not to be giving a kneejerk assessment, so a graceful apology for a nasty aspersion will be gracefully received. I wonder if an american making the same remark would have got the same chippy response to a deep-felt expression of love of country.

  12. Anonymous - it was indeed a reaction to your comment, but only because it prompted a thought, which a good debate will do. I made (and intended) no comment on your fitness to declare allegiance or pride in your country, I merely commented on the experience that I have seen over and over again (in the USA as a matter of fact), indeed I used the word "People" as opposed to "Anonymous".

    With me, what you read it what I mean - there's nothing between the lines or snide comments therefore no apology is necessary. Unfortunately with the written word it is sometimes easy to jump to conclusions and to infer meanings that aren't there.

  13. So people in Scotland,Wales and NI are "alienated" by English people loving England? What an extraordinary statement! My husband is Scottish, and the fact that he nearly bursts into tears on hearing Flower of Scotland doesnt alienate me in the least, or make me feel less proud to be English AND British. Nowadays, being English is the modern equilivent of "the love that dare not speak its name".How on earth do you 'be patriotic to all those countries, and to their union by getting it right!'? By allowing the Scots Welsh and Irish to freely express their love for their native land while bullying the English out of their right to do the same? That is something I am glad to say that the English are increasingly refusing to do - and accusations of racism should make the accuser look in the mirror - are the English the only people left in the world its ok to make racist remarks about?

  14. Since quotations seem to be all the go at the moment, how about 'On Westminster Bridge'to reduce you to tears?

    "Earth has not anything to show more fair:

    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

    A sight so touching in its majesty:

    This City now doth like a garment wear

    The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,

    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

    Open unto the fields, and to the sky,

    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

    Never did sun more beautifully steep

    In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;

    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

    The river glideth at his own sweet will:

    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

    And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

    Though the words to Flower of Scotland are pretty good too!

  15. Beautiful, Anon, describes my feelings about London perfectly.

    To the question at hand, I'd say I'm a mildly patriotic American. Without the anger and bitterness, I'd say I agree with much of what Morton says.

    While I grew up reciting the pledge, there's something coersive about making children recite it every morning. What exactly is the purpose of that? Shades of Nazi Youth.

    We do fly the flag in front of our house. Many on our street do. The flag is different from the Pledge, the flag, like all "colours", represents the exhalted ideal of a people.

    To Americans, the American Flag reminds us that our country was created as Anti-Europe and that here the people rule. Not the king, not the aristocracy.

    Having said all that, I tend to be much more patriotic about England. The accomplishments of England's people and culture eclipse America's in every way, even though we beat y'all hands down in bragadocio!

    Found it very irritating to go to Last Night in Hyde Park only to find I couldn't buy a St. George's flag--no, only Union Jacks.

    But I did stand with the crowd, tears streaming, singing Jerusalem, Rule Britania, and God Save the Queen, waving that Jack for all it was worth!

  16. Lovely post,Jill,thanks for the kind words. You are obviously the kind of american who gives America a good name.

  17. Gosh there's nothing like Jerusalem to swell the heart, even tho' it is a bit of a show-offy song!
    The equivalent for me in the States, I'm ashamed to say, is "Take me out the Ball Game", but that's because my husband and kids are so into the history of baseball.

  18. >>The equivalent for me in the States, I'm ashamed to say, is "Take me out the Ball Game"<<


  19. This is not intended to be a nit-picking post, but I must call Expatmum on her remark that Jerusalem is a "show-offy" song.How and why?The words to 'God bless the USA', authentically and undeniably showoffy, are quoted above without any sign of disapproval from you, but the beautiful words of Jerusalem get a side-swipe. Have you actually read them -I dont think you can have,recently, or not with any great attention to the meaning. Jerusalem is not a patriotic song, it is a hymn. If you had read the words, you would see that they are not boastful praise,they are a mystical meditation,full of longing for a return to a better and kinder England. The author,Blake, could be bitterly critical of what he saw as wrong with his beloved England. It was this harsh, almost Puritanical criticism, coupled with his joyful and curiously childlike visions of heaven, that inspired him to this, his greatest flight of lyricism.

    And did those feet in ancient time

    Walk upon England’s mountains green:

    And was the holy Lamb of God

    On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

    And did the countenance divine

    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

    And was Jerusalem builded here,

    Among these dark satanic mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

    Bring me my Arrows of desire:

    Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

    Bring me my Chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,

    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

    Till we have built Jerusalem,

    In England’s green & pleasant Land.

  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. Rimfire: You got all of that out of "Show-offy"?!?

    I understand you are just trying to make a counter point, but taking the line of "I don't agree, and here's why" might be a better tactic than starting out with "Have you actually read them" and gong on to insinuate she hasn't three more times, and assuming "Show-offy" was a "Side-swipe."

    Sorry if I sound like I'm nit-picking.

    And "God bless the USA" (or "Proud to be an American") by Lee Greenwood is NOT show-offy – it's schmaltzy, sentimental, sappy and unabashedly corny, and I get a tear in my eye every time I hear it.

    I also agree with you, and Expatmum, that Jerusalem is a lovely hymn and, that too, makes my heart swell.

    Also, I am partial to "The Stars Spangled Banner" and get the same feeling whenever I hear it sung, no matter how the tortuous tune is handled. But I do wonder what Francis Scott Key would make of his poem today, how we have set it to the tune of a British drinking song, made it our national anthem and added the words "Play ball!" to the final line.

  22. Sorry about the deleted post. I should have re-read my reply a second time, I might have caught the spelling errors.

  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  24. Now, now chaps, let's take a deep breath here. (^_^)

    I too found the word "show-offy" curious in describing Jerusalem, especially so after expatmum had just said it was guaranteed to make the heart swell.

    But without knowing her intent, and not wishing to speak for her as she can do that very well herself, I think she was just making a casual statement that was meant to be somewhat humourous, not serious.

    After having read expatmum's posts for several months now, I've come to understand that she comes from the traditional soft left political point of view. What we in America call "Liberal."

    I personally don't happen to hold that world-view, but expat expresses her views in such nice, polite, and yes, humourous ways that I do enjoy her posts. They make me think and see the world in a slightly different way.

    While not in the least causing me to change my own view!

    Jerusalem has fallen out of favour in recent years with the chattering class. How many times was it mocked in Calendar Girls? Too much "nor shall my sword sleep in my hand" I guess. Violence, don't you know.

    I love the song though for that very line--it's so Viking!

    Oops, think the Vikings have fallen out of favour too...

  25. Wow, interesting debate! From reading this I have decided patriotism is a wee bit like religion (ie dont talk about it in polite company)!!

    I must admit when I visited my family in Texas and we went to a rodeo and the national anthem was played, I felt emotional. I don't regard myself especially patriotic, and yet I am affected by patriotic triggers.

    I would be delighted to fly the Union Jack (my husband would probably prefer the St George's Cross) but I know it would look out of place and a bit contrived because no one else in the village flies a flag. When my husband and kids and I arrive at my parents' house in the States they have the Union Jack flying to welcome us.

    My dad apparently believes it's normal to display the 'visiting team colours' as a sign of respect. I kind of like that idea too.

  26. PS I love Jerusalem too! I feel emotional when I hear it but in a different way to when I hear the Star Spangled Banner.

  27. That does bring up the corollary to Americans love their flag. Americans just plain love flags. The stars and stripes may be the first in the people's hearts, but it doesn't stop there. People have state and city flags (okay maybe it's mostly Chicago that's really enamoured of its city flag) and more commonly the flag of one's country of ancestral origin. People also have cause flags (popularity wise that probably goes pride 2.POW) and occasional flags. My laundromat flies no fewr than 6 flags, US, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Chicago and one I'm not sure about. My neighbor painted his iron fence and part of his house to look like the Mexican flag, which is kinda tacky, but mostly awesome.

  28. Elizabeth -- I think you've got it nailed! Thats why it's a federal crime to do 'bad things' to the American flag I guess. And in the school children's daily pledge, the words begin 'I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America...'

    Maybe I'll paint the stone wall in front of my house with the Stars and Stripes... ;)

  29. Wow Mike,who knew our post about patriotism would engender such feeling, discussion and tangents!

    Jill I am actually encouraged that you could only find a Union Jack at the Last Night of the Proms in the park, maybe there is a flicker of hope for an increase in unity once again.

    I do however have to totally disagree with Toni about Jerusalem, my all time favourite hymn. I cannot get through it without a swell of pride and a tear in the eye, to me it epitomises the England of old. And I'm sorry but as much as I love the Star Spangled Banner, do I dislike 'Proud to be an American'. It really is ridiculously schmaltzy, but then maybe that's my Brit understated patriotism kicking in when faced with something so OTT it's funny!

  30. Sarah, I agree completely about Proud to Be...

    The US military love it though, so I try to be open-minded for their sake.

    Also agree with the notion that we Americans love flags. Oh yes!

    Doesn't everyone?

    We'll hang a flag for any and all reasons. Look at all the seasonal flags people hang: Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, the setting and the rising of the sun, etc. etc.

    Just think of an occasion, or make one up, and we'll a send a flag up the pole!

  31. All this talk has inspired me to hang out my St Georges flag today, so I'm off to send it up the flagpole!

  32. @Michelloui
    That's why it's a federal crime to do "bad thing" to the American flag I guess.

    Sort of. There is a federal flag code, but it has no penalties. There were state laws about flag desecration, but the Supreme Court found them to be unconstitutional as they're a pretty clear violation of free speech. That's of course why certain members of Congress always try to get in a Constitutional Amendment about flag burning. Of course it always gets voted down because a)violation of free speech and b)it isn't actually something that happens very much.

    @Brit Gal Sarah
    I'm totally with you in disliking "Proud to be an American". It's WAY OTT, but besides that I don't think I have the same sentimental associations with it that NFAH and Mike do. I mostly associate it with commercial themes and a certain CD of modern patriotic songs that was advertised on TV when I was in high school.

    Don't get me wrong I love patriotic music, God Bless America gives me a warm cuddly feeling, The Battle Hymn of the Republic makes me tear up every time, Jerusalem is lovely, and I sing along to O Canada every time I hear it. But "Proud to be an American" kinda leaves me cold.

  33. > As an American, I did what Americans do; as soon as I moved into my flat, I put up a flagpole and hung out the Stars and Stripes. I didn't do it to be different or to be noticed (although it comes in handy when giving directions to our place), I did it because that's what American's do. And now that I'm also a British citizen, I split the year 50/50 between the US and UK flags.

    All this stuff strikes me as so weird, Mike, I scarcely know what to say. Do other Brits feel the same way about gonfalolatry as I do?

    'And I'm proud to be American' versus 'And did those feet in ancient times': not exactly an even contest, poetry-wise, eh? I would not wish to sound as if I were setting myself up as a literary critic, but the former piece does not seem to have quite the same grab as the latter -- regardless of what sort of jingoism/chauvinism you adhere to -- does it?

  34. This comment has been removed by the author.

  35. Sorry - too many spelling errors.

    I did say "Jerusalem" swells the heart, people. I don't know why that was translated as anyting other than loving it, but it is a bit boastful. After all, Jerusalem wasn't "builded" there. (NB. When I say things about one country it doesn't ever translate as the polar opposite comment about the other country.)
    As a Brit, I feel I can say things about my own country in a country-deprecating manner that, as am immigrant (albeit a citizen) I am not comfortable saying about the US. I can criticise the appalling health-care situation here, but when it comes to things that Americans hold dear - it's just not my place.

  36. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  37. May I congratulate you on a really good website. The debate is heated but also very interesting and intelligent. I'll be back here often!

  38. Anonymous: Thanks! Hope you continue to enjoy it.

    Rimfire, and others: I do agree, poetry-wise, "Jerusalem" is in a different league from "Proud to Be an American" - "there ain't no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA" isn't quite as lyrical as "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand..." But they both create the same impact. For me, at least.

    Howard: You sent me to the dictionary on that one :) I can't answer for the Brits, but I do know we Americans love to display our flag, no matter what country we happen to be living in. I'm sure my neighors think I'm nuts, however.

  39. Suzy (and the 'Anonymous' to whom you were replying),
    Re. the Celtic nations being alienated by English patriotism - that's not quite correct. We are alienated by the lack of understanding of the difference between the UK and "England".

    I love the UK, both as a kingdom and a concept, but I defend my right to identify myself as Welsh, British but NOT English. I think it's more of a problem for the Welsh, because at least abroad the words "Scottish" and "Irish" have currency, particularly in the US.

    I'm all for the reclaiming of the St George's Cross from the BNP, and for England having its own, separate national anthem (probably Jerusalem) as well as "God Save the Queen", the same as the other nations.

  40. About the "circumcision" thing: These days the rate in the U.S. is much lower than when you were born; some statistics say that only about 1 in 3 boys have it done, while others suggest about 50-60%. The link below shows this:

    I'm an American male (despite how you might mistake my gender with the name "Kelly") but had a savvy mom who said "no" to having it done to me when the rates were upwards of 80%, for which I am thankful for.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.