Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today. We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.
Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country. I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House. With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do. After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.
Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”. This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats. However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November. All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.
It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated. Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were. They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them. Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.