Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Banal Nationalism

I'm sure anyone visiting this blog is not really interested in essays, especially not my college ones. However, for any of you who might be interested and who want to see what's keeping me busy this is some of the writing I've been doing for my studies.

And, yawn, it may be boring, but sure, life can't be all fun and games- something I just discovered recently! I promise some more decent material that doesn't consist of study coming soon.

Banal Nationalism
In his book, Banal Nationalism Michael Billig claims that ‘daily, the nation is indicated, or “flagged” in the lives of its citizenry’. He uses the term ‘banal nationalism’ to convey the daily ‘flagging’ that we as individuals experience on a daily basis.

Billig realised that there had to be a way to distinguish common daily nationalism from national extremism. A negative connotation has been associated with the word nationalism over time as much of the focus has been given to extreme nationalists and separatist movements within the last century. This means that nationalism in western societies has been met with certain ambiguities. Such a term has led to a disjointed misrepresented view of the power of nationalism by suggesting that it operates within an extreme set of principles. He notes (Billig 1995) the ‘hidden’ political discourse in the importance of nationhood referring to historical events such as the Gulf War in 1991 and the Falkland War in 1982 where calls were made to ‘protect and to serve’. In more recent times further examples of ‘hidden’ political discourse can be seen such as in relation to televised media discourse in relation to the War on Terror. Billig recognises the ‘veiling’ of nationalism, making it an authoritative ideology in which it can operate subconsciously in the minds of a nation, while remaining unopposed to opposition. This modern type of nationalism is the key for political movements, a way in which political goals can be achieved covertly without subjecting the masses to nationalist extremism. In earlier times ‘nationhood’ was not as important a concept as it is now, borders and boundaries were not clearly mapped out, ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘citizenry’ were dubious and other important issues such as religion and family would have been of more concern.

There are two views of nationalists, one is that they can be viewed as extremists who are driven by violence seeking irrational ends and then they can also be portrayed as patriots who battle against repressive colonists (Billig 1995). “Nationalism includes the patterns and belief practices which produce the world - ‘our’ world – as a world of nation states, in which we live as citizens of nation-states” (Billig 1995:15). “When talking of ‘our’ beliefs one might prefer other different words such as ‘patriotism’, ‘loyalty’, or ‘societal identification’. Such terms banish the word nation and with it the spectre of ‘nationalism’, at least in ‘our’ regard to attachment and identities. The problem is such terms overlook the object to which the ‘loyalty’ or ‘identification’ is being shown: the nation-state. Then present approach does not restrict the term ‘nationalism’ to the ideology of ‘others’. Nationalism is broadened as a concept to cover the ways that established nation-states are routinely reproduced. This frequently involves a ‘banal’ nationalism, in contrast with the overt, articulated and often fiercely expressed nationalism of those who battle to form new nations” (Billig 1995:16).

Every nation must have an account of its own history, its own identity –a shared remembrance. It’s in this remembering that a collective forgetting occurs, remembering is simultaneously a collective forgetting (Billig 1995). Renan points out, that a nation’s unity “is always affected by means of brutality” (Billig 1995:11). However, while nations are affected by means of brutality they soon forget the violence and extremism that brought the nation into existence. Once a nation is established, it depends for its continued existence upon a collective forgetfulness. Not only is there a collective forgetting of the past but so there is a corresponding forgetting of the present. National identity in established nations is remembered because it is embedded in everyday life continually reminding, or ‘flagging’, nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so frequent and such a common part of the social environment that they operate ‘mindlessly’ rather than mindfully (Langer, 1989). “The remembering, not being experienced as remembering, is, in effect, forgotten. The national flag hanging outside a public building illustrates this forgotten reminding. Thousands upon thousands of flags each day hang limply in public places. These reminders of nationhood hardly register in the flow of daily attention, as citizens rush past on their daily business” (Billig 1995:38). Nationalism is the ideology by which nations have come to view their everyday world. It is as if there couldn’t possibly be a world without nations” (Billig 1995). National identities of nation’s citizens may be strengthened due to these routine flaggings.

Banal nationalism is evident in everyday life and operates over a wide spectrum. Feeling a sense of pride and belonging is what human beings feel the need for, and being able to express one’s own identity in a more collective world. Citizenry allows for people to feel a collective worth that they can experience what others around them are experiencing. Sporting events are also a form of banal nationalism as it allows the individual to belong to a collective group and experience the joys of sharing in a collective experience. Representing a country’s team means that as a nation its citizens are having a shared experience and are subjected to small reminders of what it means to be a citizen. A collective understanding of heritage comes into play that citizens share in the knowledge of ones own past, a subconscious collection of knowledge that is shared with all. Other themes that are subjected to banal nationalism are national songs, language, popular euphemisms and national myths (Billig 1995). Many of these symbols are most effective because of their constant repetition, and almost subliminal nature.

It is argued that an identity contains a psychological element though it often difficult to explain what this constituents. Billig realises (1995) that identifying ‘identity’ remains ambiguous as it does not just contain one state or being. “An identity is not a thing; it is a short-hand description for ways of talking about the self and community” (Shotter and Gergen, 1989).

Whether we are aware or not we are continually reminded of our identity in our daily lives. This does not mean being reminded blatantly of our national identity, it is not enough to keep the concept of identity embedded into public thought it must be “flagged discursively” and repeatedly in “the ears of the citizens, or passing before their eyes” (Billig, 1995, 93). Billig (1995) notes that nationhood is near the surface of contemporary life and habits of language will continually be acting as reminders of nationhood. Everyday words that are often taken for granted are barely conscious at times but they serve to stamp out our national identity. The media operates constantly in our everyday lives and transcends boundaries, offering ways for banal nationalism to enter unobtrusively into homes across nations. Media is with us constantly from our waking lives we are constantly surrounded by media messages and we communicate to others what we think of the media content we consume. Media helps us to build both our own and collective identity. Media, such as television is seen to account in assisting to maintain identity and helps contribute to the “reflective project of the self” (Giddens 1992). With this in mind one can be aware that while certain media texts use nationalism in an obvious context they rely on more covert forms of nationalism.

Habits of language are continually acting as reminders of nationhood. Language is not confined to violent discourse but acts on everyday language that is taken for granted and which inhabit nations. Clichés, rhetoric types of speech offer barely conscious references to nationalism but act covertly seeping into the minds of nations (Billig, 1995). Not only are politicians responsible for helping to spread forms of banal nationalism with referring to ‘our’ country or ‘we the people’ the mass media daily bring the flags home to its citizenry, the media offers ways to communicate to the masses, enabling a streamlined approach to spread the nationalist ideal in a more covert way. From TV to newspapers we are daily flooded with rhetoric, with ideals of nationhood that we ignore or are not even aware exist. Not only does the media play a large role in forming opinions in the subconscious but the citizenry of a nation also help to spread the ideas of ‘nation’ by discourse and word of mouth daily. It is not overnight that ideas are formed that ideologies are built; it is through a slow, churning - a subconscious partaking.

Billig realises that if banal nationalism was only to be found in the words of politicians then it would be highly surprising if it was embedded in the ordinary lives of millions of people. Citizens can remain sceptical when it comes to politicians, they are aware of certain political rhetoric and distain such discourse. He looks at newspapers in particular examining the discourse and banal nationalism which is event in the media. A few examples of banal nationalism were noted in a British newspaper analysis, taken in 1993. In the Guardian, the prime minister in his campaign cited “the Kiwi spirit” claiming that “there’s a new mood, new optimism and New Zealanders are confident of their ability and their country’s future” (Billig 1995). This is an example of national clichés that politicians use to covertly spread a sense of pride and nationalism.

There are various ways that banal nationalism can be used within the media as discussed in brief previously. Billig remarks (1995) that politicians go to great lengths to touch on our nationalist pride, by addressing our past history and relating it to the present but citizens have become more aware of this sort of banal nationalism and for a large part ignore such rhetoric. Therefore for these daily ‘flaggings’ of nationalism to effectively inhabit the lives of the nation’s citizenry it must operate on different levels and dimensions. Billig notes (1995) that to get an idea of these daily flaggings one must look at ordinary days, days which are not cause for national celebration. He looks at flagging in the daily British press on 28 June 1993. The papers viewed were divided into three groups: the ‘sensational tabloids’, ‘respectable tabloids’ and the ‘broadsheets’. The main news story of the day was presented as an unforeseen event. A few papers had the bombing of Baghdad as a story, this flagged national pride in a direct manner. At first glance some of the papers indicated a quarrel between both Clinton and Hussein. The Times read: “Clinton warns Saddam: don’t try to hit us back”. The Star similarly ran with: “Fight back and we smash you, warns Clinton”. It went on: “President Clinton last night threatened to ‘finish off’ evil Saddam Hussein”. It is interesting to note the banal rhetoric evident in these passages, the reference to ‘we’ ‘us’ and the fight between good and evil. Here Clinton is not only representing himself, but he represents the people of America, he is the spokesman for everything virtuous. America and Iraq may have been the focus nations involved in certain articles, but other papers ran with other nations rallying around the side of ‘justice’. “Britain, Russia and other American Allies expressed firm support”, stated the Times. Not only was Clinton representing the American people who were referred to as ‘we’ and ‘us’, nations that also supported America’s actions also became a part of the ‘us’. Not only is nationhood framed in that particular manner but other stories outwardly, as Billig notes (1995:113), flagged Britishness. “Britain basked in 79 degree temperatures yesterday” (Sun); “Britain’s highest bungee jump” (Star); “Britain’s latest cult heroes” (Today). Media cleverly uses patriotic themes to increase sells, by banking in on national themes and rhetoric they attract the subconscious of the consumers.

Other such stories related to heritage such as the Mirror on a Monday published a 16 page supplement titled, The Great British Pub. The title suggested that not only were pubs being displayed on the pages, but essentially they were presented as symbols of the British nation. Not only was it displayed British Pubs but ‘great’ British pubs, this word conjures images of pride, of heritage and nationhood. However, such nationalist rhetoric would have most certainly been lost in the nation’s “collective forgetfulness” (Billig 1995:114).

Billig refers (1995) to the Deictics of Homeland-Making, which is employed by the media. This is a complex deixis of ‘here’ and ‘now’. The ‘now’ relates to up-to-date news, whereas the ‘here’ is what is viewed on the page. From this the media plays a role in helping to speak for and to the nation, evoking a “national ‘we’ as well as a universal ‘we’” (Billig 1995:15). The Sun, in its editorial, complained that the European community had taken “our money”. The ‘our’ was in reference to the nation, to the collective ‘our’ that was somehow affecting everyone. This form of writing is not just reserved to tabloids; broadsheets also employ similar techniques representing a collective view of who we are. The Daily Telegraph in its Business News headlined an article: “Why our taxes need never to rise again”. The writer in this article suggested that “if our huge borrowing requirement can spawn even the slightest move in this direction, we will have cause to bless £1 billion a week spewing into the financial markets” (Billig 1995:15). Media helps us to form our sense of place as if our nation was the most important nation –the centre of the universe.

To be able to fully understand homeland-making deixis (Billig 1995) three examples were given to help one fully understand the role that media plays in daily flagging the lives of its citizens. When Billig researched the daily papers he noted the rhetoric of the newspapers that referred to the British ‘the nation’. The Mail wrote about “one of the nation’s most wanted men”, whilst in the Guardian a politician referred to “the nation’s interest and love of music”. Foreign news is specified, countries are addressed. A story headline reading: “Three American teenagers killed in shootout” published in Ireland would put the nation’s citizens at ease that the story is in the ‘here’ and not in the ‘now’. Weather reports in particular in many newspapers contain firstly the country of the nation where the report is televised and then perhaps the rest of the world’s weather. This subconsciously plays on the mind of the nation that their country is of importance all the other nations follow. In The Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, and The Times maps of the British Isles are all positioned centrally. This helps ingrain into the subconscious minds of the nation’s citizenry that the weather that exists within the boundaries of the nation and the geographical positioning of the nation in the news is all apart of the ‘we’ (Billig 1995). Home news is not all about ‘us’ or ‘we’ other words are used to convey a sense of nationalism though at times it is difficult to decode certain connotations. Billig notes (1995) that one might expect imbalances between domestic and foreign news in the press with more ‘flaggings’ on a national name and recognises that a more controlled study would have to be done to determine how many times a national name was mentioned in the press. When natural disasters or emergencies happen normally a nation would give prevalence to its citizenry, reporting on their whereabouts, how many nationals deceased, and any heroics or acts of bravery on the part of the nation’s citizens. Martin Kettle in The Guardian criticised such bias and interest in ‘ourselves’ writing about the “Fleet Street slide rule for the news of death and disaster stories – six Brits, 60 Frogs, 600 remote aliens” (Billig 1995:118). The structuring of news media also gives prevalence to home news, opting to discuss foreign news on a separate page; signposts are clearly laid out so as to avoid any ambiguity as to where the news is located. Subconsciously we are being guided to what news is of importance and in so doing are shown what is of consequence. Small segments of foreign news contrasted with large national spreads only reiterate the importance of ‘our’ nation.

Nationalist pride can be reflected on its citizens through sport. In news print as well as news on television large segments and sections are given to sport. “Sport is merely not sport, as C.L.R. James stressed, it goes beyond the player and the spectator” (Billig 1995:120). The sport in the media allows for a repeat of the nation’s stereotypes “place and race as well as masculinity” (O’Donnell, 1994). Billig notes (1995) that sport is celebrating the nation’s achievements, allowing for the readers of the text to share in ‘our’ victories and to salute ‘our’ heroes. The feeling of pride that is felt and shared by all lifts the nation and celebration in relation to a win helps encourage a sense of national unity. Reference to masculinity and war is touched on in sport media, honour is at stake, the national side is battling a foreign team. Instead of partaking in real warfare western countries are now battling it out on the pitch for the gratification of the nation and the media builds on this pleasure. Bilig refers (1995) to sport as being “texts of pleasure” which is a phrase coined by Barthes (1975). Here pleasures echo past struggles and conflict of nationhood, such rhetoric has been instilled in our mind.

Banal nationalism is relevant to Ireland and the Irish media and can be seen working covertly on a daily basis while western nations such as America may display more obvious forms of banal nationalism it is still prevalent in Ireland today. Ireland is a relatively young country gaining independence in 1921 though it wasn’t until 1937 when the Irish Constitution came into force. The national ideal and what it meant to be a citizen of Ireland had to grow - it had to build its idea of what it meant to be ‘Irish’. A national identity had to be born; media outlets were formed such as Radio Éireann, which allowed for the idea of what it meant to be Irish to enter the homes of its citizens.

In Ireland the media helps us form our own identity as well as gives ‘others’ a medium in which they can better understand who ‘we’ are. Though subconsciously we may not be aware of the nationalist rhetoric behind such messages we are still subjected to banal nationalism, which ingrains within us a sense of what it means to be Irish. Sport is a perfect example of banal nationalism. It’s an activity that the nation takes part in, where flags are raised, and pride in the country’s jersey is displayed in newspaper columns and television. This is evident with soccer and rugby as these are two major sports that receive much national and international attention in the media, not only are they followed by sports fans for the sheer love of the game but subconsciously they are supporting the ideal of what it means to be ‘Irish’. Getting behind the national team, the waving of the flag, the unity of singing the national anthem all play on the subconscious - the ‘we’. By backing the team, the national side, it is in a sense backing the country, supporting the ‘we’, wearing ‘our’ country on ‘our’ sleeve. This national pride, seeps into ‘our’ ethos, into what it means to belong, into history and language. ‘Our’ team, ‘our’ boys, ‘the green army’ all instil a sense of nationalism without the violent overly nationalistic extremism that is associated with figures such as Le Penn. The sense that all citizens can partake of their national team within their own homes means that people are subconsciously giving into the language and historical context of the ‘team’ and of ‘us’. This means that the experience of supporting the national team is not just available to those at the match but available to all citizens and can be talked about discursively on all levels.

GAA is another extremely popular sport that is viewed and discussed in everyday life, while it is not considered an international sport there is a certain pride in the continued survival of such a national sport. GAA is a testament to ‘us’ and the world of Ireland’s national heritage. There is a sense of ‘Irishness’ involved in supporting and watching such events, that these games are ‘our’ games, and with flags waved and anthem sung ‘we’ are subconsciously aware of our national heritage, of the past, of our inner psyche, of what it means to be Irish. The media helps to compound this sense of nationalism, though such thoughts may not be contemplated when watching the match behind a large screen or when read about in the paper it is somewhere there, showing us what it is to be Irish, instilling within ‘us’ the need to pass this love of the game onto ‘our’ future generations.

Banal nationalism instils within us ‘our’ characteristics though we may be unaware as to the issues represented and not concerned with the national connotations. We may view the news and see Concern workers assisting flood victims in other nations or we may see Bono speaking on behalf of third world nations to wipe out their debt. All these images may subconsciously work its way back to our sense of who ‘we’ are. We see humanitarian efforts or malevolent gestures as characteristics that ‘we’ portray. That ‘we’ are a generous nation, that ‘we’ are concerned about the state of the world, and that ‘we’ are ambassadors, though we may never step foot on the country in question ‘we’ see it. Use of rhetoric is evident, reference to Ireland being the forerunner, leading the way internationally, the ‘Irish people’ giving millions to a war torn nation are all apart of daily flagging that the media uses to appeal to the nation.

The way ‘we’ see ourselves internationally is also another form of banal nationalism. The way in which the media represents and promotes the nation of Ireland helps to construct our identity and to build an image of ‘us’ to the world’. While ‘we’ may not be aware of the impact the representation carries and are weighed down with rhetoric messages we feel they are apart of ‘us’. An example of this can be seen in relation to the ban of traditional light bulbs where Ireland became the first country in the world to ban the traditional light bulb. Eoin Dabsky, Greenpeace campaigner said: “Today Ireland has taken a lead in banning energy-wasting light bulbs by as early as Jan 09, Greenpeace hopes that Ireland’s decision will light the way for the EU and the rest of the world” (, 2007). Here rhetoric is evident, the word ‘light’ and Ireland’s decision to be forerunners in such a venture - in a sense is a light to the EU and the world and plays on ones sense of nationhood. However, subliminal it still engages the subconscious.

The advertising world also uses rhetoric and banal nationalism to appeal subconsciously to the nation by using imagery and language to appeal to the Irish masses. By covertly suggesting through language of what it is to be Irish, national pride may come into question. Irish goods and products such as Perlico, a broadband service, offers a 100% Irish product. Images of ‘Irishness’ such as the shamrock, the Guinness logo or even the colour green that convey national pride are all examples of subconsciously tapping into the nation’s idea of identity.

Overall nationalism has received negative connotations, reflections of activism and violence echo throughout history. However, nationalism is still active in modern society on a ‘hidden’ subconscious level that relies largely on the media to banally convey to nations what it means to be ‘us’, what ‘our’ nation is and how the world views us. Irish media certainly operates covertly daily flagging a sense of a collective identity to the nation. Billig states (1995), in relation to sport, that such pleasures and inter-textual echoes of warfare cannot be innocent and that the do-or-die enthusiasm in sport may be translated into obligations to defend country and the idea of nationhood. So nationalism though clandestinely operating within banal nationalism may be less innocent than it purports to be and while many media ‘flaggings’ are ignored one might wonder what affect such rhetoric has on a nation.


Billig, M., 1995 Banal Nationalism, London: Sage Publications.

Barthes, R., 1975, The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang ; Reissue edition (January 1, 1975)

Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Shotter, J. and Gergen, K. 1989, Texts of Identity, London: Sage Publications

Langer, E. 1989, Mindfulness. Reading MA: Addison Wesley.

O’Donnell, 1994, Mapping the Mythical: A geopolitics of national sporting stereotypes. Discourse and Society. 5: 345-80

Ireland to ban energy-wasting lightbulbs in early 2009’ (accessed 6/10/07)

“The Great British Pub”, The Mirror 28 June 1993, p 1.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Well written Tiger.