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Metaphors Made Real: On the Power of National Symbols

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If ever there was a question regarding the power and importance of national symbols, the recent acceptance of Palestine into UNESCO may put them to rest. Though the furor over this announcement is related to issues much more complex than the relevance of specific historical and cultural sites, the decision by UNESCO's member-states illustrates the power held by those natural and built features of our shared landscape to function as symbols of sovereignty and identity.

Ours is a world of symbols, and none more powerful than those tied to the state. As revolutions bloom, and movements take shape, as dictators fall and leaders rise from the crowds, we are living in an historic moment, and it is our national symbols, some built of stone and glass, some part of the natural world -- even those of flesh and bone -- toward which we often turn to define who and what we are, in these, our tumultuous times.

A nation, at its foundation, is a metaphoric construct. Though defined by actual borders and governed by tangible laws and a government, a country is a conceptual place brought into existence, and later held together, by an ideological relationship between its citizens and the way in which they choose to govern the physical place that they have collectively imbued with life and meaning.

The national metaphor that serves as the founding structure of a country is reinforced, in part, by those national symbols that together form the visual representation of who and what a nation aspires to be. These symbols are so ingrained in the fabric of our daily lives as to be rendered ubiquitous, sometimes-clichéd, and often, utterly invisible -- that is, until revolution and protest bring them to the fore. A country is fundamentally a concept, and it is natural and built symbols like our Washington Monument, Japan's Mount Fuji, Saudi Arabia's Mecca, Greece's Parthenon, Mexico's Zocalo Square or Namibia's Sossusvlei desert that lend it a physical presence. These national symbols, however innocuous or even childlike they may seem (as they are often more a part of the landscape of childhood than of adulthood) are important -- even vital -- to the adherence to those aspirational, foundational ideals that we aspire to as citizens, and as nations.

Just in these past six months the United States has witnessed the monumental unveilings of new national symbols in the form of the September 11 Memorial in New York and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- both controversial in their own ways, and in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has inspired the destruction of now-obsolete national symbols like Gaddafi's infamous golden fist, and the rebirth of new ones in the forms of Cairo's Tahrir Square and Tripoli's re-named Martyrs Square.

Though the world often measures national power by wealth, influence and military might, it is those nations whose understanding of its own foundational metaphor -- its national identity -- that possesses a form of internal strength that cannot be touched by another nation, no matter its size or might. Our collective national identities, as reinforced by our symbols, provide boundaries that strengthen nations.

This power, of course, can be inverted by tyranny: fascist, autocratic and corrupt governments often master the dark art of oppression's visual reinforcement. One need only view the work of North Korea's cynical propaganda machine to see it in action.

However, revolution rises when those universal ideals, marked by symbols, bear stark contrast to the inequities of current life. When national identity is subverted, in other words, when those fundamental ideals that make a country who and what it is are negated in the name of power and reinforced symbolically in the built world, the outcome is revolution. Moreover, when a country no longer lives up to those foundational characteristics upon which it was founded, its symbols become empty place holders, awaiting a time when government and citizens live up to a nation's own highest aspirations.

When representative of the very best aspects and aspirations of human nature, national symbols serve a vital role in our lives, and the lives of our countries. These physically realized representations of who we are, and what we hope to be, help to reinforce the important national qualities that (in the best cases) serve to make our nations better places for us all.

Our cultural and historical heritage, our foundational beliefs, our founding struggles, and our national goals; these together represent that unconscious decision in the name of identity made by a people everyday, as a whole, and with constancy, and it is these intangible elements that imbue a nation with meaning and metaphorical sovereignty. Our national symbols, be they official or otherwise, are physical representations of our national self. When national symbols, no matter the nation, truly represent a country's foundational ideals, they not only represent the citizens of that nation, but those universal qualities that we all share together, as human beings.