Opinion | Alex Kingsbury

Capture the flag

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28: Students gather as they demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government to ban the Self-determination referendum of Catalonia during a university students strike on September 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Catalan goverment is keeping with its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on Octorber 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A student demonstrates against the Spanish government’s decision to ban the self-determination referendum in Catalonia due to take place Sunday.

There’s nothing like a scuffle over symbols to bring simmering blood to a boil. And that’s inevitable — national symbols are, like a fumbled football, forever up for grabs. On Sunday, though, we’re likely to see two unusual displays — on two different continents — of how flags and other forms of national bunting are simultaneously powerful and ambiguous.

In the United States, no symbols are more potent than the Stars and Stripes and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At last weekend’s NFL games, some players knelt during the national anthem in a silent protest against police violence — a protest that escalated an already heated debate: Do real Americans ever take a knee during our national song about our national flag?

This Sunday, some football players may take a knee again.


Meanwhile in Catalonia, the region in northwestern Spain, flags are out in full force, as voters there decide Sunday — in an ostensibly binding referendum on independence — just how far to push their identity. For decades, under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the region’s traditional symbols were a particular target for repression. So opponents nationwide adopted the flag of the FC Barcelona, the region’s preeminent soccer team, as a symbol of resistance to the dictatorship.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Many Catalans today see the Spanish national flags flying atop federal buildings in their region as a symbol of division, rather than national unity. Even though Franco repressed the entire country during his decades of rule, Catalonia has made grievance the driving force behind the referendum. The courts have declared the vote illegal and the national police have already made arrests in order to stop it from happening. Clashes with demonstrators, whether the vote happens or not, are a real possibility. Three cruise ships loaded with police officers have docked in the port of Barcelona in preparation for violent demonstrations.

When one symbol becomes politicized, others inevitably follow. In Madrid, even some leftist Spaniards who normally loathe nationalist displays of the country’s national flag find themselves flying it from their windows — expressing a desire to keep Spain together, not to keep Catalonia down.

The flag is the most visible symbol of that Catalan movement, but the deeper issue dividing Spaniards is definition of “demos” — the Greek word for a people, community, or national unit that forms a democracy. Historian José Álvarez Junco, writing in El País, notes that demos is not something concrete or rational; rather, it is something emotional. The same is true for American symbols as well.

Symbols don’t need a long history to wield outsize influence. “The Star-Spangled Banner” may have been written during the War of 1812, but was only adopted by the Congress as the country’s official anthem in 1931. (Incidentally, that was the same year that 99 percent of Catalan voters approved a referendum for regional autonomy.) Before that, a slew of songs competed to be the soundtrack of American patriotic observations and sporting events.


Which brings us back to Sunday — a day that reminds us that symbols take on different meanings. For now, the Catalan flag is an insurgent symbol. In the United States, a protest during the national anthem is a show of profound disrespect in the eyes of some fans who apparently either don’t believe that police violence is a problem, or feel that a song — about the American flag surviving an actual military bombardment — is too fragile of a symbol to withstand a silent, peaceful protest during the performance of its first stanza.

National symbols, whether sung or flown, are powerful cultural markers of where our communities end and where the others begin. That’s why conservative nationalists are most keen to wield them as symbols against internal dissent. But it also makes them useful rallying cries for opposition movements. After all, symbols represent an entire community, with all the multitudes it contains.

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at alex.kingsbury@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of Catalonia. It is in northeastern Spain.