I can remember watching a game show on Vietnamese television maybe a decade or so ago. It was around the time that TV programming in Vietnam was starting to change, and this game show was an example of the new type of programs that was starting to emerge.
I can’t recall how the show worked, but like many game shows in North America, in the middle of the program the host took some time to ask the contestants a little bit about themselves. And I remember being very surprised at what one of the contestants said.
When asked what he liked to do in his free time, this one contestant said that he liked to read about history, and then he became more specific and said (at length) that he liked reading about national heroes (anh hùng dân tộc) and their efforts to resist foreign invasion (chống ngoại xâm), etc.
I was surprised to hear such a nationalistic response. The model I had in my head for such responses was from the game show the Wheel of Fortune where the host invariably asks where the contestants are from, what they do for a living, their marital status, and something about their personal lives.
The answer to this final question is usually something light or humorous, not a lengthy response about national heroes.
The more I thought about this, however, the more I came to realize that these two “models” are actually quite similar. In particular, they both represent the role of repetitive participation in creating national citizens.
If you watch the part of the Wheel of Fortune where the host asks the contestants questions about themselves, they always answer in the same way: they are all from generic “all-American” places (Louisville, Kentucky or Fort Lauderdale, Florida, etc.), they all do middle-class jobs (a loan officer at an insurance company, an elementary school teacher), their family life is always happy (have a “beautiful wife,” “handsome husband” and/or “wonderful kids”), and they often do something that we might not expect (have a black belt in karate, etc.).
All of the answers are different, but they are also all the same. Everyone ultimately says the same thing, over and over and over. So why doesn’t this bore people? I’m not sure, but I think it is related to the reason why people in other contexts can apparently read and talk about national heroes over and over and over.
In the 1990s, Michael Billig wrote a book about a type of nationalism that he referred to as “banal nationalism.” In that work he said the following:
“The central thesis of the present book is that, in the established nations, there is a continual ‘flagging,’ or reminding, of nationhood. . . In so many little ways, the citizenry are daily reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding. The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”
So what Billig is saying is that when we walk by a flag “hanging unnoticed” on a public building, we still actually “notice” it (often subconsciously) and this reinforces a sense of national belonging.
Saying on a game show that you like to read about national heroes, is similar to this, but different. It is also a “flagging” or “reminder,” but it is something that an average person does, whereas that same person does not put the flag on the flagpole outside the public building. Somebody else (an employee of the state) does that (as part of his/her official job).
So alongside banal nationalism I think we could define a related type of nationalism, something that we might call “repetitive participatory nationalism.” For some reason, people participate in “flagging” or “reminding” themselves and others of their national belonging, and they do so repetitively.
Why is it that people say the same things over and over and over? Why don’t they get bored? I don’t think that this is restricted to nationalism. It’s something common to the experience of being human. Nationalist ideas have just become entwined with this phenomenon.
This needs to be theorized. Maybe it already has?