Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Multicultural Patriotism : is there such a thing ?

I have been following closely the Torino Winter Olympics, for various reasons: I’m an ex professional athlete and always admired the Olympians; I’m originally from the Piedmont region and am proud of the great job it is doing hosting such an exciting and world-class event; the company I work for is a sponsor and I have enjoyed discovering this aspect of Olympic support as well as the realms of sports marketing. But, above all, these winter Olympics are making me ponder about patriotism.

Milo’s dad and I had this discussion the other night: I was explaining him how Italians feel particularly patriotic during major international sport events, how I never really learnt the Italian national anthem until a few years ago, however if a Soccer World Cup or an Olympic game was up, I have always warm-heartedly cheered for my country (like every night in the last ten days).

Milo’s dad said he never really felt particularly patriotic (although he’s nicknamed ‘The Ambassador (of Belgium),’ since he’s one of the proudest Belgians I have ever met!). Belgium being a country dealing with an uneasy tension between the Walloon and the Flemish communities, and also having a tri-parliamentary structure (a significant Germano-phone community is represented as well), clearly has little room for patriotism. He also explained how showing off Flemish pride, by waving flags and shouting hymns, has been considered a behavior typical of the (extreme) right wing. So, no flag, no hymn for him growing up.

I remember starting wondering about patriotism when I first landed the US at age 19: I was amazed at the omnipresence of the American flag in front of public buildings (such as the post office, the mall, etc.). The national anthem would be played before every game at intercollegiate sports. My volleyball team was not exempt, and I always felt a little awkward about it. I was the only one in the roster without her hand on her heart. It’s easy to understand that North America has played well the patriotism factor to provide a common denominator to all the diverse cultures present on its sole. And still, there is something nice about the anthem and about feeling very much part of one nation.

I attended Seton Hall University, in NJ and was on the volleyball team. At the time, another fellow Italian, Marco Lokar, was on the (more media visible) basketball team. Something occurred to him in those years which took my definition of patriotism to another level. When the first war in Iraq broke, you might remember, Americans massively supported operation Desert Storm by displaying and wearing a yellow ribbon. Within the sports arena, athletes at all levels begun wearing an American flag stitched to their uniform. Marco refused to, on the ground that he was a pacifist, that he was not supporting the war and was not supporting just the American troops but his heart was behind all soldiers involved in the conflict, on both sides. On February 2, 1991, Seton Hall played St John’s University at Madison Square Garden in NY City and the public and the media picked on his “lack of solidarity”. This caused a nation wide debate and created a huge upheaval, which resulted with him leaving the country a few weeks later, after having received several threatening phone calls and serious menaces (see this article on Sports Illustrated for the full story and a very moving profile of Marco Lokar, who happens to be also a true multicultural man with Slovenian and Italian roots).

Shortly after this incident all the sports teams were summoned by the athletic department director who wished no more negative media attention stirring (there were quite some foreign athletes, in my team I was along with an Argentinian and a Puerto Rican). He asked us to think it over and to decide as a team whether we would want to wear the flag or not. I was less idealistic than Marco, although I knew him and respected him. We have had several conversations on the topic. Italy was also engaged with troops in the Gulf. The volleyball team played the following games displaying the American flag on the uniform. This episode has more to do with moral values than with patriotism, however it was the first time I clearly felt “I am not from here” and realized the power of such notions even in a country like the United States, where individual freedoms (such as free thinking!) are at the base of its democracy.

But besides identifying with a flag and a song, what does it mean to feel patriotic today and is patriotism a value that will make sense for our multicultural children? Wikipedia says: “The word patriotism is used to describe emotions and attitudes, political views, symbolism, and specific acts, with respect to a political community - its territory, history, culture, values, and symbol.”

Milo’s dad asked me if I really felt Italian and why. I did not think much about it and words poured out of my mouth. I do feel Italian, even though at this point I lived half of my life abroad and have embraced many American values, like working ethics and style, or a certain positive openness. But I feel very much attached to the cultural heritage of my country. When I’m at the opera and I listen to a performance in Italian, it’s sheer pleasure; something tickles in my genes. The same for certain literature pieces, or for aesthetics, design, for certain foods, certain landscapes. It’s what I hope to convey to Milo from my side: a precise sense of belonging, a certain sensitivity, which extends to nurturing friendship and relationship with others; the importance of the family nucleus, of celebrations; the sacred sense of hospitality. Perhaps I am mixing too many things at once. I don’t know if that means being patriotic.

Would I die for my country? I honestly think that today nobody should die, for any country. And I have not been a good citizen, as I have barely voted ever since I have been of age. Does that make me less patriotic? Does it make my pride for the Italian men’s Cross-Country Skiing gold medal and my sadness for the ice dancing Italian couple placed 6th less valuable? Am I less patriotic because, finally, I decide to pursue a career abroad, and don’t plan on living in Italy any longer? Or because I am not a soccer fan and never spent a Sunday of my life glued to the TV screen following the ligue games?

I can’t help wondering what Milo’s feelings will be. If we end up settling in France, will he inevitably feel French, even if he will be regularly staying in Italy and Belgium and other places? If he will have any sport ambition, will it matter to him which national team he will integrate? Will he feel a chill when he will listen to Charles Aznavour the way I sigh when I listen to Eugenio Finardi or Lucio Battisti? Where will he feel comfortable, where will he belong? I have already explored the theme of Third Culture Kids in another post, which relates to these issues as well. I struggle trying to imagine his feelings, how his identity will be permeated by the exposure to three cultures. There is something reassuring in knowing you come from one place, with deep and specific roots. He will be certainly enriched by the fact that his roots are spread around, but will this mean that patriotism will mean next to nothing to him?

Will there ever be a strong feeling of European-wide patriotism? At present times, it seems, Euro skepticism is more voiced. I felt “European” for the first time in graduate school, in California. The university had a high incidence of foreign students, equally spread among Europeans and Asians. Although I remember it as the most fulfilling and enriching multicultural experience in my life, I also remember very strongly that the Europeans immediately clung together and so did the Asians. We recognized in each other a certain common sensitivity for things, we had the same reactions. My friend Holger from those years recently emailed me his dismay for the current world events, and mentioned nostalgically how back then “people from all over would get along so well with each other.” (I also think it had to do with socio-economics, we were all coming from similar middle class miens and this made it certainly easy to interact. I don’t mean to make a classist remark here, but it is a considerable fact).

In conclusion, this will be one fascinating learning experience in watching Milo grow into an independent man. I cannot but wish that patriotism for him will have only positive connotations of olympic breath.


Anonymous said...

clo - - i was very moved reading this post. i'm probably one of your most "american" friends, but i really don't consider myself american at all. america is more an ideology at this point than a strictly defined geographic entity (as are many places, i'd imagine), and i feel very detached from the mainstream american philosophy: shop at walmart, vacation at disney, and keep up with the joneses. i'm really trying to effect change in my small town of 30,000 people, which is hard enough. so to feel "american" patriotism is an alien concept to me at this point. my mission in life was given me by god, not the tripartite government cloud under which america is currently dying. i root for people of character to win in life, and that leaves me unable to know whom to root for in sports anymore. the olympics are a total joke now, not amateur nor professional, simply ruined like many other aspects of modern life by commerce. america is a bullshit country, but this is a bullshit world so america really probably fits right in. i just wish we could learn to get along better and play well with others! luke

Clo said...

Hi Luke, I agree with you that a clear cut definition of what "america" is, is an unattainable task: but perhaps that's part of the charm of the country, the multi-faceted quality. As for the olympics, although I understand your disappointment in the movement. But the athletes are there for real and I am always moved to see them emotional on the podium while their flag is raising. They are probably the last real thing, the last bearer of an unspoiled, unpolitical, uneconomical type of patriotism, and that's what I meant to convey. thanks for your reaction!

Alice in Austria said...

That's a really interesting post, Clo. So is there such a thing as multicultural patriotism? I have a tendency to think there is. I've observed in my life that patriotism tends to shift and change depending on whether I am actually in my home country or not. So I'd be a lot more "patriotic" abroad than at home. I used to watch Olympics (winter & summer) with an eagerness that I considered to be patriotic (I was for Austria, of course) - but that was abroad. Here, within Austria I really couldn't care less. I haven't followed the Olympics at all! I think we won a couple of gold medals. While living in Korea or the US this would've made me ecstatic, I would've put on my Austria-sweater and run around, proud to be belonging to such a wonderful nation (I really did do that!). But since I live at home I find I don't really care ... it's like I know our athletes do just fine without my support. ;)

My patriotism has shifted as my identity has shifted. During teenagerhood I was extremely patriotic. As an adult less so. As I think about these issues I find it increasingly difficult to find satisfactory definitions for "patriotism," "nationalism" and all that. I think that in order to be patriotic you have to have an essentialized vision of what you home country is, and then you get into stereotyping and essentializing. So "being Austrian" becomes simplified to eating apple strudel and MOzartkugel and people with blonde hair and blue eyes wearing dirndl and Lederhosen all the time - and at this point I start to feel uncomfortable and things become very problematic for me. And of course it's not true, not all Austrians are like that (look at me for one) ;)

Benedict Anderson says it nicely, that nationalism and patriotism are all about "imagined communitites". That's a very fascinating notion! Maybe it's all in our heads, after all!!! ;)