The confusion of cultural identity with nationalist symbols such as flags, anthems and even buildings is increasingly dangerous and their use must not become a “test of allegiance”, argues a new book by poet and writer, Simon Mundy for Radix.
In Culture: The Enemy of Progress? Mundy argues that the current culture wars – typified by Brexit and Trumpism – represent a misappropriation of culture by nation states.
Describing the designs of flags as “mostly unimaginative, sometimes bland, sometimes seriously hideous”, Mundy says they carry an absurd amount of emotional weight and power “becoming totems in a secular, fetishistic way”. Mundy goes on to show that these attachments rarely reflect actually real, historic connections, but are instead a means of political control and suppression.
In response, Mundy sets out a wishlist for the end of government based on nationhood, the global reform of history teaching and an educational focus on the arts, as well as the removal of misleading words such as “national” and “royal” from buildings and institutions.
Mundy says that the threat of loss of cultural identity is used by autocrats to create fear and even violence. Mundy writes:
“If we feel our culture is undermined or derided we become intensely indignant and defensive at first, aggressive second. The current shock to the collective narrative in Britain unleashed by the reassessment of slave ownership is a classic example of how politically fraught telling history can be.
“Those who wish to cause trouble understand that one of the fastest ways to inflame conflict is to attack the opponent’s culture, and defacing or destroying important symbols can become a war aim in itself. It is why Islamists blow up ancient Buddhist monuments, protesters topple statues and every night in the Eastern Slavonian town of Vukovar in the mid-1990s either a Catholic or an Orthodox church had a bomb placed in it. Such acts are designed not just to hurt feelings and humiliate but to infuriate the opponent so that they implode or come together as an identifiable group that can be attacked.”
“There needs to be another way; a period for discussion, re-interpretation and an agreement to tell the story so that everyone’s honour is upheld. Instead of asking the question incessantly ‘where do you come from?’, we should ask ‘What are you bringing, what can we learn from you and what would you like to have from us?”
Radix Chief Executive, Ben Rich adds:
“Second only to Covid, culture wars have shaped the start of the 2020s, and their impact could be more long-lasting. Whether it’s the storming of the US Capitol, terrorism in France, or divisions between London and the North, we see a narrative of nations divided against themselves. These have, in turn, been reinforced by social media echo chambers in which discrete ‘truths’ compete for attention in fact free environments. Mundy’s book helps us to understand both the on-going threat and to tease out some possible ways forward.”