Flagging identity

9th September 2005 at 01:00
America is not the model we should follow as we struggle to come to terms with the July 7 terror attacks, writes Reva Klein

Since the call to define and promote Britishness was sounded following the events of July 7 and 21, everyone seems to be looking westward across the Atlantic for models of how to achieve it.

Not without reason. Almost from birth, American children can't avoid being reminded that they are American. They hear the national anthem at the start of sporting events. They recite, hand on heart, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the beginning of every school day. They grow up in neighbourhoods festooned with the stars and stripes, see them plastered all over car bumper stickers and enter public buildings such as post offices and schools that boldly display tall flagpoles.

They are proud of their hyphenated identities, such as Italian-American or African-Amercian, despite President Theodore Roosevelt's insistence back in 1915 that "there is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else." Clearly, the hyphenated Americans won out against the English-Dutch-Scottish-Huguenot president.

The meaning of what being American is, with or without a hyphen, is communicated to children in a myriad of ways at school, in the media, by politicians, even in places of worship: they are citizens of the most freedom-loving, democratic, beautiful and bounteous, advanced, opportunity-laden country on earth. I know this because I grew up having these messages rammed down my throat until, at the age of 17, I stuck my middle finger up at Uncle Sam and flew off to pastures rather greyer but infinitely more introspective, more open to interpretation, more self-mocking and ironic and ambiguous. And here I stayed.

So now people as diverse as Norman Tebbit and Hazel Blears along with commentators on both left and right are calling for us to be more like them. The thinking seems to be that the process of identifying British values, traditions, history and cultural characteristics to create a national identity will somehow prevent alienated Muslim youths from becoming extremists and terrorists. This is in part based on the belief that in America where values are shared, respected and upheld, you don't have people turning on each other, fuelled by a murderous ideology that hates and dehumanises the other.

Precisely where this mythical America is located is not altogether clear.

But down here on planet Earth, alongside the homicides, multiple homicides and occasional massacres perpetrated by Americans against their compatriots with stunning regularity, there are an estimated 100,000 members of white supremacist militia groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, who are armed and determined to wreak havoc against those fellow Americans who are members of ethnic and religious minorities. These guys call themselves Americans and say they are defending the values and moral principles of the country that they love.

Which is to say that while Americans come together as a formidable united front in times of crisis, as they did four years ago this weekend after 911, their default position is a disunited amalgamation of disparate and sometimes mutually exclusive and antagonistic groups, divided racially and economically in ways that are difficult for much of the rest of the world to comprehend. While America's anti-racist, anti-segregation legislation is exemplary, the truth on the ground is that in large swathes of the country, particularly the Mid-west and the North-east, ghettoisation is the norm, whether it is in plush white-dominated gated communities, or in inner-city neighbourhoods consisting of streets of boarded-up windows. With 36 million Americans living in poverty, nearly a quarter of them black, I couldn't begin to imagine what their shared identity is.

Ultimately, we need to be asking ourselves if casting around for a definition of what it means to be British and encouraging minorities to identify themselves as Asian-British, Black-British, Turkish-British and so on is really going to help create a more united society. Somehow, I don't think so. Focusing on who we are may be an interesting and even illuminating exercise, but it is a side issue, distracting us from the more pressing ones of inequalities at home and the impact here of British foreign policy in the Middle East and in other parts of the Islamic world.

Our time would be more productively spent by creating a climate in schools that fosters open discussion on current affairs issues and that gives students a forum in which to discuss their fears, their anxieties and their hopes for the future in an environment of mutual respect and seriousness.

Honest dialogue on themes of importance to young people helps them to understand their commonalities - including shared values - and to bridge their differences. All this takes rather more time and effort than pledging allegiance to a flag, but then most things with any meaning do.

Primary Forum 32 Reva Klein is a journalist and co-author, with Edie Friedman, of the forthcoming Reluctant Refuge: the story of refugees in Britain

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