Why Are Public Displays of National Symbolism Still Important?

February 23rd, 2018

Why do our hearts flutter when we see the Jamaican flag raised? Why do we smile approvingly after a stirring rendition of Jamaica, Land We Love? Why are these rituals still so important?

This blog post was actually inspired by another blog post, written by a very special U.S.-based Twitter friend. He wrote on the heels – or rather in the slightly stunned aftermath – of an extraordinary performance of the Star Spangled Banner by a pop singer at the start of an NBA All-Star game last weekend.

Fergie delivers a surprising Star Spangled Banner.

Fergie delivers a surprising Star Spangled Banner.

Fergie, who used to sing with a hip hop group named Black Eyed Peas, snuggled up to the microphone à la Marilyn Monroe (shades of Happy Birthday, Mr. President) and launched into one of the strangest renditions of the U.S. National Anthem I have heard in a long while. One is not really sure whether she was aiming for a “sexy,” slow motion, jazzy version; or for something that simply pulled the heart strings. Her voice swooped around the anthem’s nigh-impossible lyrics, with sudden high notes where you least expected them. She seemed to really enjoy herself. If our dogs had been present, however, they might well have started howling.

What did this mean to the audience? The military men standing stiffly beside the flags of course kept a straight face; the basketball players did not do so well, trying to stifle their laughter at times. There were cheers at the end – perhaps relief that it had ended, perhaps also genuine appreciation of the performance. The tweets that followed were wickedly funny, and sometimes unkind.

My Twitter friend noted in his blog post that Fergie’s National Anthem really was of no consequence, albeit “fairly odd.” His question was: Why do these symbolic gestures matter? Why do we need them, at all? He concluded (I think) that we do not need the pomp and circumstance. As for me – well, I have to confess that I like it. I even like it when it’s not done very well. It’s the emotion behind it that counts.

Governor General Sir Patrick Allen inspects the Guard of Honour outside Gordon House prior to the official Opening of Parliament. (Photo: Kings House)

Governor General Sir Patrick Allen inspects the Guard of Honour outside Gordon House prior to the official Opening of Parliament. (Photo: Kings House)

Let’s try to imagine a major event in Jamaica. Let’s take the Official Opening of Parliament, for example, which is preceded by a lot of sergeant majors shouting orders at soldiers, lined up in the heat in dress uniform (sometimes one faints). There are prancing horses, and flags, and parliamentarians stride down Duke Street in their finery, while commentators speak in hushed tones: “Now we are awaiting the arrival of the Governor General…” Then there are trumpets.

What is the point? How would it be if the politicians showed up as usual (well, quite often they don’t show up, which is another story) and after the Prime Minister has said “This is the start of the new parliamentary year, so let’s get started” – they simply got on with the job? They could save some precious time at least; after all, a lot is wasted in the course of things.

Yet, if we did all of this without fanfare, something would certainly be missing. A whole lot, in fact. Ceremonies, flags being raised, anthems being sung (whether off-key or not, no matter) make us feel…important, not individually but as a group. This is something we do together.

In fact, it could be said that, in times of difficulty or uncertainty, these performances (which is what they are, with a reverent and receptive audience) take on added emotional significance. When all around us is falling apart, we hug them a little tighter. At a high profile funeral, for example, the ritual is intense and loaded with meaning. There is something more here than national pride. It is about reassurance. It is a “group hug.”

Perhaps that is why, when Ms. Fergie makes such a hash of the National Anthem, or a singer flounders through a Whitney Houston-style rendition of the Jamaican anthem, we feel somehow deflated. We make the best of it, a wry smile hiding our disappointment; sometimes, we openly express our disgust. They did it all wrong! No respect, we say. They let us down.

Fergie apologised for her performance, at pains to emphasise that she meant well – and is a patriot:

“I’ve always been honoured and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA. I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone…I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

I don’t think she needed to apologise. It wasn’t that bad. It was, well, unusual. However, it was necessary. We couldn’t have managed without it.

Could we?







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