In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term “banal nationalism” to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving “extremists,” but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives.
That we live in a world of nations was not inevitable; that the United States, or Sweden or India, exist was not inevitable. I was born in Southern California. If I had been born at another time in history I would have been Mexican or Spanish or something else altogether. The nation is a social construction.
The nation, then, must be reproduced. We must be reminded, constantly, that we are part of this thing called a “nation.” Even more, that we belong to it and it belongs to us. Banal nationalism is how the idea of the nation and our membership in it is reproduced daily. It occurs not only with celebrations, parades, or patriotic war, but in “mundane,” “routine,” and “unnoticed” ways.
The American flag, for example, casually hanging around in yards and in front of buildings everywhere:
References to the nation on our money:
The way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else:
The naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country:
The performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:
So, what? What could possibly be the problem?
Sociologists have critiqued nationalism for being the source of an irrational commitment and loyalty to one’s nation, a commitment that makes one willing to both die and kill. Billig argues that, while it appears harmless on the surface, “banal nationalism can be mobilized and turned into frenzied nationalism.” The profound sense of national pride required for war, for example, depends on this sense of nationhood internalized over a lifetime. So banal nationalism isn’t “nationalism-lite,” it’s the very foundation upon which more dangerous nationalisms are built.
You can download a more polished two-page version of this argument, forthcoming in Contexts magazine, here. Images found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
This February, president Obama sat down for dinner with his visiting French colleague, François Hollande. In the company of the first lady, other government officials, and some celebrities, the men enjoyed an appetizer of Illinois caviar, Pennsylvania quail eggs, and 12 US varieties of potatoes. The main dish was a Colorado beef steak with mushrooms, Vermont cheese, and salad, followed by a dessert of Hawaiian chocolate cake, Florida tangerines, and Pennsylvania vanilla ice-cream. Three types of wine accompanied the meal. Not just any types of wine: they were American wines made by French-born winemakers.
Like the food, nothing in this meal was left to chance. But why was the encounter so carefully planned? Would it make a difference if, to celebrate the French-American friendship, the presidents raised a glass of Italian wine instead?
Food provides us with much more than physical sustenance: it is a symbol of relationships among individuals and groups. What was at stake at the February state dinner was not just pleasing the presidents’ palates, but nurturing ties within and between entire nations.
Photo: Dominic Episcopo
Imagine, first, that the diners were served tortillas or spaghetti as a main course instead of the dry-aged, family-owned-farm-raised rib eye beef steak they had. The former quickly evoke images of Mexico and Italy, while the latter tells a distinctly American story.
Serving dishes associated with particular countries is one way of fostering an imagined community – a nation state – which Benedict Anderson describes as being too great to be maintained by personal relationships, and one that must be continuously symbolized in order to persist. Especially on celebratory occasions, food takes part in producing and communicating national identities.
State dinners aren’t the only such example: another is the festive food used in New Year’s meals. The Vietnamese will eat a tet cake, the Belgians will have smoutebollen, and Slovenians will always have potica. In a melting pot nation, sending a message of a coherent community is even more important. France used banquets in it post-revolutionary times to bring together citizens in defiance of regionally specific gastronomies, writes Julia Csergo. Similarly, during the state dinner, a steak symbolizing quintessential America amidst its diversity was the star of the presidents’ meal.
And imagine, second, what would happen if president Hollande refused any part of the meal. If he skipped the cheese, we might think he is suspicious of the way the U.S. regulates its dairy industry. If he only finished half his potatoes, does that mean American produce does not taste good enough for the French? And if he rejected the dinner invitation to begin with, does this indicate the French dislike the US altogether?
Such presidential gestures would transcend his individual palate. Two political representatives sharing a meal are not only communicating their own food preferences, they are shaping a relationship between two communities. Using commensality as a political instrument is as old as the feasts of ancient Greeks and Romans, writes Richard Ascough: the banquets that took place on special occasions served to maintain connections with gods as much as to foster connections between citizens and forming a political identity. Those who partook in the meal were considered part of a tight group, while those who were not invited, or worse yet, refused the invitation, cast themselves as outsiders. The American and the French presidents enjoying a meal together, then, symbolizes the nations’ peaceful coexistence and firm diplomatic ties.
Offering a bottle of Italian wine instead of a French-American one during the state dinner would not be a disaster, but it would certainly convey a different message, one perhaps of a somewhat colder relationship. But if we are to believe Mary Douglas’ classical 1972 text, Deciphering a Meal, just the fact the presidents were sharing more than drinks is promising: we are almost never reluctant to share a drink with strangers, while sharing meals tends to be reserved for those to whom we wish to signal intimacy. The state dinner, conveniently held right before Valentine’s day, was a political sign of affection.
Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow, at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology.
This is a picture of a statue in Lexington, KY, in honor of Civil War general John H. Morgan. It depicts him on his favorite horse, Black Bess. The inscription is “Gen. John H. Morgan and His Bess.”
Here’s what’s interesting about this: Bess, as you might guess, was a mare — a female horse. The statue, however, has testicles. You can see them in the picture below. The sculptor gave Bess testicles because he considered a mare an unworthy mount for a general — despite the fact that Morgan himself seemed to think she was just fine.
I found out about this in Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen. Images borrowed from here and here. This post originally appeared in 2007.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists. I’m really excited to see the rest. The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.
The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically. As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.” The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Studying up on the literature on gun marketing for a recent interview with the New York Times, I found a 2004 article on the topic with some really interesting findings.
The study — by public health scholar Elizabeth Saylor and two colleagues — asked what tactics marketers use to sell guns in a single month of advertising. In contrast to what you might imagine, only a small minority of gun ads emphasized self-protection (3%) or a Western cowboy lifestyle (5%). Zero percent mentioned protecting one’s family. Only 15% of gun ads linked ownership to patriotism. The most common substantive theme was hunting, but even that was a theme in only 20% of ads.
So what are gun advertisers highlighting in their ads? Technical attributes. The majority of gun ads (91%) emphasize the things that make one gun different from the next. For example, they discuss the quality of the gun (61%), its accuracy (38%) and reliability (35%), and its innovative features (27%) and uniqueness (21%).
Why are gun manufacturers using this marketing strategy?
Here’s where the statistics get really interesting. At the time of the study, 44 million Americans owned firearms. Three-quarters of these owned more than one gun. In fact, 20% of gun owners are in possession of 55% of all guns (excluding law enforcement and military).
In other words, guns are not evenly distributed across the U.S. population, they are concentrated in the hands of a minority. Most people that don’t own a gun are never going to buy one, so the best strategy for gun manufacturers is to convince people that they need lots of guns. Differentiating the technical attributes of one from another is their way of telling the buyer that any given gun will do something different for them than the guns they already have, enticing the gun owner to own a range of guns instead of just one.
The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)
When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place the tatami floor with the others, my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor. The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.
I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.
It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.
Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.
I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated. Now that assumption was shattered. But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on feeling of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.
When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.” In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us. We experience that emotion as personal. But in an important way, it is also social.
How many Americans think about the war in Afghanistan regularly? The daily realities of war are inescapable for military members and their families, but the rest are largely able to stay disconnected from it. The issues of foreign policy and war dropped off the radar entirely for most Americans before the 2012 election.
Mother Jones Magazine’sWe’re Still at War: Photo of the Day feature is meant to remind Americans that the war is ongoing. Here’s the photo for February 15, taken by Sgt. Jon Heinrich:
About 68,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, down from the peak of 101,000 (not to mention the those who were in Iraq). Without a draft, WWII-style war bond campaigns, or highly visible war industry, most Americans need to be reminded that we’re at war. Unlike veterans and military families, civilians not directly connected to the military have a kind of privilege to forget the conflict in their daily lives. The result is a growing chasm between U.S. civilians and the Armed Forces.
In 2011, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their connections to the military and found a considerable gap: “Never has the U.S. public been so separate, so removed, so isolated from the people it pays to protect it.” The vast majority of those over 50 had an immediate family member who had served (mostly due to WWII and Vietnam). Of those 30-49 years old, 57% had someone in their immediate family serve. Those between 18-29 are the most disconnected from war; only 33% have a close family member with military experience:
This leads to differences in views about the military. Those from military families are more likely to believe that civilians do not understand what they go through, that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” and that they are “more patriotic than most people in the country.” They’re also more likely to recommend the armed forces to a young person — though only about half would do so:
My own research on the experiences of military families during deployment supports the Pew findings. And patterns in who joins the armed forces may lead to an increased gap. Those with veterans in their family are more likely to join the military; 79% of young veterans, compared to 61% of the public, have family members who served. As fewer Americans have relatives who were in the military, making them less likely to join themselves, insulation from the military grows.
This bumper sticker reflects this gap between military families and everyone else. It draws a distinction between “my” service member and “your” freedom, while seeming to assume a lack of support from non-military Americans:
Military families believe that others don’t understand what they go through during deployment. As one mother told me, “We understand why we try to be strong but automatically cry when we see the foot powder display at Wal-Mart.” Or as an Iraq war veteran explained to Time,
The gap between the military and everybody else is getting worse because people don’t know–and don’t want to know–what you’ve been through…There are no bond drives. There are no tax hikes. There are no food drives or rubber drives … It’s hard not to think of my war as a bizarre camping trip that no one else went on.
Veterans return to a country where very few understand what they have been through, which makes reentry into civilian life more difficult — just one of the consequences of having a small segment of the country assume the burdens of war.
Wendy Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media.
Food shortages during World War II required citizens and governments to get creative, changing the gastronomical landscape in surprising ways. Many ingredients that the British were accustomed to were unavailable. Enter the carrot.
According to my new favorite museum, the Carrot Museum, carrots were plentiful, but the English weren’t very familiar with the root. Wrote the New York Times in 1942: “England has a goodly store of carrots. But carrots are not the staple items of the average English diet. The problem…is to sell the carrots to the English public.”
So the British government embarked on a propaganda campaign designed to increase dependence on carrots. It linked carrot consumption to patriotism, disseminated recipes, and made bold claims about the carrot’s ability to improve your eyesight (useful considering they were often in blackout conditions).
Here’s a recipe for Carrot Fudge:
You will need:
4 tablespoons of finely grated carrot
1 gelatine leaf
orange essence or orange squash
a saucepan and a flat dish
Put the carrots in a pan and cook them gently in just enough water to keep them covered, for ten minutes. Add a little orange essence, or orange squash to flavour the carrot. Melt a leaf of gelatine and add it to the mixture. Cook the mixture again for a few minutes, stirring all the time. Spoon it into a flat dish and leave it to set in a cool place for several hours. When the “fudge” feels firm, cut it into chunks and get eating!
Disney created characters in an effort to help:
The government even used carrots as part of an effort to misinform their enemies:
…Britain’s Air Ministry spread the word that a diet of carrots helped pilots see Nazi bombers attacking at night. That was a lie intended to cover the real matter of what was underpinning the Royal Air Force’s successes: the latest, highly efficient on board, Airborne Interception Radar, also known as AI.
When the Luftwaffe’s bombing assault switched to night raids after the unsuccessful daylight campaign, British Intelligence didn’t want the Germans to find out about the superior new technology helping protect the nation, so they created a rumour to afford a somewhat plausible-sounding explanation for the sudden increase in bombers being shot down… The Royal Air Force bragged that the great accuracy of British fighter pilots at night was a result of them being fed enormous quantities of carrots and the Germans bought it because their folk wisdom included the same myth.
But here’s the most fascinating part.
It turns out that, exactly because of the rationing, British people of all classes ate healthier.
…many poor people had been too poor to feed themselves properly, but with virtually no unemployment and the introduction of rationing, with its fixed prices, they ate better than in the past.
Meanwhile, among the better off, rationing reduced the intake of unhealthy foods. There were very few sweets available and people ate more vegetables and fewer fatty foods. As a result “…infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased.”
I love carrots. I’m eating them right now.
To close, here are some kids eating carrots on a stick: