Dr. Mike Woolf compares how loyalty, customs, and group identities are expressed in the US and Europe. In today's globalized world, how do these communities foster and maintain belongingness? Find out more in this month's column.
Generalizations about national behaviors are often rooted in stereotypes. Statements beginning “the English tend to…” and “the Italians are…” while “the French usually…” ignore the realities of national diversity and fragmentation. However, there are patterns of observable actions in specific contexts that will help students understand where we differ and where we are the same without falling into the trap of overgeneralization.
Spending time in the USA leads one to realize that there are, for example, many more diverse ways in which loyalty is expressed compared to most of Europe. Comparing customs with which American students are familiar with those they encounter abroad can offer some rich areas of investigation. Conspicuous demonstrations of patriotism rooted in symbols and rituals are, for example, common in the USA and rarer in much of Europe. They are not at the heart of many national identities within Europe in which patriotism is frequently conditioned by circumstance.
Loyalties, of course, come in many shapes and sizes. They may be expressed in terms of ideological or religious beliefs that transcend national identities; they may also be to sub-national entities such as the city or the tribe. Loyalty to nation is often more consistently visible in societies built around struggles for independence or revolution such as France, Russia and, of course, the USA.
Patriotism in much of Europe, for example, tends to be expressed publicly in times of crisis, real or imagined, or by right-wing nationalists expressing dissent from what they see as some form of corruption of identity. Displays of patriotic fervor are relatively rare. Italy demonstrates, in the most strident way, the fragility of loyalty to nation. For the most part, if asked to identify themselves, Italians will identify with the city or region rather than with the nation, declare themselves to be Padovani or Venetian, rarely Italian.
Londoners too have a somewhat conditional relationship to England, let alone the oxymoron that is called the United Kingdom (in reality, the Disunited Queendom). London is a city of ethnic mobility quite distinct from the stereotypical images of a traditional society disseminated by pop culture, tourism, and, sadly, some of the iconography of education abroad. As Hanif Kureshi conveys in his script for the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), the city transcends national identity. London is in England but is not part of it: “We love our city and belong to it. Neither of us are English, we’re Londoners, you see.” That distinction signifies a loyalty to a place smaller than the nation. Whatever home is, it is not represented by the flag of England.
The English flag of St George has been appropriated by the far right and no longer symbolizes a healthy love of country but rather that the country is white, heterosexual and superior to other nations. Furthermore, even the less politically weighted Union Jack is not venerated in the UK. We make it into dishcloths, slippers, and ironic underwear.
The national flag is an important symbol of national pride in the USA and elsewhere of course but it is rarely so in much of age-weary Europe, with the exception of France. Flags matter more in nations whose roots reside in revolution rather than evolution. They are also of significance to those who have been subject to persecution and/or loss of national identities. Thus, for Native American tribes, Roma, and Kurds, by way of example, flags are constructed to express a political identity, and a collective constructed history. The flag may be a statement of national pride, of resistance to ill treatment or indifference. It is clearly of major significance to those whose national identity has been subverted or undermined.
This is exemplified by the creation of numerous flags representing tribes throughout the USA: “The closing decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a burgeoning of Native American flags without precedent in the history of native communities anywhere in the world.”  That is despite the fact that the flag as a symbol of identity is a primarily European concept that has become transformed into “a quintessential symbol of a people’s sovereignty.”  It represents collective identity and is a physical signal of distinctive history that deserves and demands attention.
The Roma flag.
The creation of a Roma (Gypsy) flag in 1971 and an anthem similarly seeks to establish the Roma as a group entitled to equality of status and parity of respect. It asserts an emerging political consciousness of community and an act of self-definition in defiance of imposed prejudicial stereotypes. The Kurds have suffered dispersal and persecution. A flag created in 1928 was intended to act as a rallying point in the Kurdish rebellion against Turkey.
In all cases, these flags consist of symbols that are representative of key elements in national narratives. The Cherokee flag contains a ring of seven yellow stars which symbolize the original clans and the sacred rites of the traditional religion. The Chickasaw flag represents the Mississippi, part of the ancient homeland from which the tribe were displaced. The Navajo flag symbolizes sacred mountains and livestock: sources of spiritual meaning and economic wellbeing. The 21 rays of a sun disk are at the center of the Kurdish flag represent significant aspects of the native Kurdish religion of Yazdanism. The blue and green of the Roma flag represent the sky and the land. In the center a cartwheel symbolizes freedom of mobility. These are collectively symbols of identities that have been threatened, undermined or destroyed. Loyalty to these flags asserts commitment to an idea of nation.
The Kurdish flag.
No Navajo, Kurd, or Roma is going to use a replica of their flags to wipe the dishes. The flag matters most in contexts where nationhood has been repressed or denied. It is visible representation of pride in distinctive identity. This history, the flag, says deserves to be seen.
The Cherokee flag.
The Chickasaw flag.
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Francis Scott Key's poem of 1814 “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” renamed the “Star Spangled Banner,” was adopted as the US national anthem in March 1931. That flag, symbolizing national resistance to British military offensive in the war of 1812, is at the heart of the imagery of the anthem.
The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, similarly draws upon revolutionary resistance to the assault of enemies (English translation):
Arise children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
...To arms citizens
Form your battalions
The anthems of France and the USA celebrate struggles for independence. In contrast, the British national anthem is based upon a meek (perverse?) subjugation to monarchical domination: “long to reign over us.” Cinemas in the UK have long abandoned the playing of the national anthem at the end of films not least because the first notes invariably used to signal a collective dash for the exit.
That there is no equivalent in Europe to the pledge of allegiance, enacted on a daily basis by school students in the USA, signals diverse relationships to rituals of loyalty. At stadiums throughout the USA, singing the anthem before the beginning of the game is a ritual performance of patriotism. The crowd stand in unison, hand on heart, and sing, admittedly with various degrees of conviction. Dissent from this orthodoxy is very rare and, when enacted by a professional sportsman, likely to have serious consequences. In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Although this led to a sequence of similar protests, Kaepernick has been effectively excluded from participation in the professional game ever since.
There is nowhere in Europe that I know of where there are comparable, routine demonstrations of unconditional national loyalty. National anthems are not routinely played in domestic competitions. At international sports events, these public performances of patriotism have a particular and limited function. They express support for a national team engaged in a form of metaphorical warfare in which there is victory and defeat without the danger of mortality: temporary patriotic fervor. The wealth of emotion expressed by Welsh rugby fans as they sing Men of Harlech is intense but contained within the duration of the match.
Loving the Alma Mater
A similar distinction is apparent in comparing relative commitments to universities. Most Europeans have a relationship with their alma mater that is certainly less effusive than those in the USA. My recent visit to the University of Wyoming corresponded with a ritual that has no European equivalence: Homecoming. Over several days, graduates of the university of all ages return to the campus to express their ongoing sense of belonging and commitment. That this is designated as a return “home” would be outside of European norms. Many of us will go through contortions to avoid even the modest reunion. The notion that the university is a metaphorical home is particular to the USA.
A sense of enduring emotional connection finds expression in, for example, the context of support for college sports teams, in particular, American football. This is not the case throughout the USA but is a recurrent basis of emotional loyalty in many environments. College and university sports teams are embedded in the identity of many institutions and are significant sources of pride (and income) as signalled by massive stadiums and highly paid coaches. In contrast, loyalties to soccer teams in Europe are unconnected with any educational institution.
This should not be taken as evidence that Europeans are innately disloyal though it should be noted that Cambridge University proved a rather rich source of spies for the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1960s. Europeans are perhaps loyal to different things.
Loyalty is a common human emotion and expresses a universal need to belong to something beyond ourselves. It asserts a commitment to some version of community in reaction to the alienation that marks much life in cities. It is forged in response to the spectre of globalization as a force that carries with it the sense that something is happening beyond our control, that erodes our sense of social connection.
On a small scale, I experienced this directly in a bar at Newark airport. I like to go to bars where it is possible to have profoundly meaningless conversations with bar staff. There is, for example, an Irish bartender I sort of connect with in a pub called The Mother Red Cap in North London. I sometimes stop for a drink after righteous labors at CAPA. This is a very traditional Irish pub, mostly serving the needs of largely inanimate elderly chaps. In contrast, Kerry, the bartender, emanates exuberant energy and chirpy cheerfulness.
We demonstrate mutual good will. The fact that I rarely understand a word she is saying and, I suspect, she has no idea of whatever drivel I might be spouting does nothing to diminish that we are communicating beyond language. There is a human kindliness that transcends the absence of specific meaning. The words we use are not meant to convey information, ideas, or beliefs; they say we are not alone.
In contrast, at Newark airport I sat at the bar and waited for some form of communication. That came not from a cheery face but in the form of an iPad on which we were required to press buttons to order a drink. Between me and the drink there was no smiling Kerry but a machine. This is sadly a demonstration of emotional alienation that characterizes much of our daily engagement in the worlds in which we live.
Neighbors are strangers in many urban environments. “Home” is not a fixed place; we are transient beings; home is everywhere and nowhere. That is the price we pay for the blessings of mobility.
It is no wonder then that we construct communities to which we can enact rituals of belonging and loyalty. Otherwise what would we do? Weep? Live in loneliness and fear? It is human nature to seek to belong to something larger than ourselves whether it be a city, a faith, a political party, a university, a football team, a country or whatever construct mitigates the isolation of much of urban life. These associations make us less afraid. We are children in the dark looking for a hand to hold.
Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.