The coincidence of significant victories for populist, anti-integration parties in Europe with Memorial Day weekend in the USA brings up a particularly fraught element of contemporary statecraft: nationalism – a word as much at home in the Gulag as in the first human-earth orbit, as much a part of Wounded Knee as Apollo 11, and a word inextricably linked to the wars in which our collective forbears fought, killed, and died.
As the veterans of the nationalist wars of the 20th century fade into history, what are we to make of the force that drove tens of millions of our fathers and grandfathers to early graves under fluttering patriotic banners? Some of these flags are passing on with those who raised them, but the passage of the men and symbols we alternately revile and honor has brought little clarity to those of us still seeking to evaluate the forces underlying such great (and terrible) acts. The swastika was surely stained with the blood of innocent millions, but were the crimson drops falling from the hammer and sickle those of hapless kulaks condemned to starvation in Siberia or liberating heroes tearing down Nazi death camps? I grew up saluting the Stars and Stripes. My grandfather served under it, but neither he nor I would go so far as to overlook that our flag has some red in it too. Such is the historical ambiguity we all must stare down in the serious contemplation of our nationalist selves.
Not to say that every flag must hang as a sober reminder of war-deaths. In the United States, it seems, flag waving is a safer, more innocent pastime than in countries from which nationalism exacted greater, bloodier tributes, but even here it gives us some pause. We cannot help but recognize the implicit chauvinism in the exuberance of the act. And if we truly wish to remember and to honor the sacrifices made by those who have preceded us, we must look into the future (and the past) with open eyes – because those whom we have the greatest cause to honor did not fight blindly. They saw in the forces they engaged and defeated, not just an enemy flag, not a flag that was wrong because it was different from the ones they flew over their own homes, but a flag that was wrong because it flew unbounded. Those we honor most highly fought for the ideal not of one flag but of many – that no one should feel compelled to fly another’s flag above his own.
It should be no surprise then, that popular support for any single flag, be it of the EU or otherwise, is not so easy to pull together. Having fought so hard for the right to be different, having lost so many parents and grandparents in the struggle to maintain separate identities, a great many Europeans will doubtless be unwilling to trade that right for the mostly as-yet-untried benefits of integration. And we across the Atlantic cannot help but understand that reluctance, that pride in tradition and rootedness in the lands of our mothers and fathers that comes so naturally. Of course we all must be vigilant to guard against the chauvinist excesses to which any nationalist expression is sorrowfully prone -- to fail to do so would be as much a dishonor to those who battled such excess as it would be to forget that they too loved their countries – but we must balance our discomfort with the inherent arrogance in our self-love against an acknowledgment of reality. No man can have a family, a wife, children, brothers and sisters, and not love them. No man can pour his sweat into the land he works year after year and not come to feel it is part of him. We are social creatures. Group identity is a foundational part of our psychology. The lone ranger is the rara avis in the essentially gregarious human flock.
To imagine a world beyond nationalism is at least, then, to imagine a world beyond nations, and, quite possibly, to imagine a world beyond humans. Flags (in the interminable plural) are something we may have to accept in ourselves, not relics of a passing age, but living reminders of the perennial human battle against our native chauvinism, proof not only that the sacrifices of those who have passed on are still meaningful, but also that the balance between our own self-love and our knowledge that every heart (not just our own) cherishes a similar glow, must be struck anew at the changing of each era. So honor your forefathers, meditate on their sacrifices, and salute your flag, but do not forget that every man has a flag to salute, and if his flag stands for anything true, it is the fact that no two flags can ever really be the same.