Friday, December 20, 2013

Highly Symbolic: Balearics Law of Symbols

How important is a flag? I guess the answer will vary according to one's sense of nationalism, but however much one honours the flag or doesn't and so however much one might feel nationalistic or not, there is little denying that it conveys nationalism. There is also undeniable potency in the flag. Combined with the anthem, it can reduce even the strongest Olympian to a gibbering wreck. Hung at half mast, it pays homage to the war dead and the notably dead. Paraded in streets, it shouts victory or opposition.

There has been research into the effects of exposure to a flag. Unsurprisingly, and even at subliminal levels of exposure, this leads to greater national identity or identity with some entity (politicial party perhaps) which utilises or exploits the flag. It is unsurprising simply because the more there is exposure, the greater the awareness of the flag and what it might represent.

The flag's origins were in battle as military standards. Or they were a means of identifying particular clans. These might have doubled as military standards but otherwise they were a device to extract fealty or loyalty and to exert supremacy, power, influence and ownership. The flag didn't really become a statement of nationalism until it was necessary for a nation to announce its dominance and even then, overt nationalism, as expressed by the flag, was something which didn't emerge until revolutionary upheaval in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century. The Stars and Stripes and the Tricolore were arguably the first truly overt statements of nationalism via pieces of cloth with different colours.

Despite this relatively recent exploitation of the flag as nationalist symbol, historical revisionism enables the flag as potent national symbol to be placed much further back in time. One such flag is the senyera. Originally the flag of the old kings of Aragon, it has long been adopted either wholesale or in part by the component regions of what became the Crown of Aragon. Catalonia's flag is the senyera, while the flags for Mallorca and the Balearics (there being two different ones) both use the senyera. For the purposes of nationalist revisionism and so therefore for the potency of the senyera as national symbol, Catalonia is a case study all in its own right. Was it ever a nation? Some would argue that it was, while others would dismiss the suggestion.

There are also arguments regarding the generally held view that the flag was originally that of the kings of Aragon. Following the Catalonian line of historical revisionism (or even accuracy), it was in fact a flag of the Count of Barcelona towards the back end of the eleventh century and so at a time when there wasn't a Catalonia as such but a County of Barcelona.

Whatever the exact origin, there is no question that the senyera is a very old flag. It is one of the oldest of European flags that has survived to the present day. And however the arguments go, either pro- or anti-Catalonia, there is also no question that it was not a flag of Castile. It was a flag apart, albeit one that ended up being shared by a number of regions.

The flag, any flag that is, is a symbol, a symbol of nationalism. As far as the senyera is concerned, it has become a popular symbol in Mallorca. Indeed, its popularity has never been greater. Up until about two years ago, the senyera, while popular, was a latent symbol of centuries past, reflected in the modern-day island flags. Now, it is not latent. Quite the contrary.

It was the current regional government's attitudes and legislation which led to the senyera being rediscovered anew. It started to appear on public buildings, usually tied in a bow. These buildings included town halls and schools. It was a symbol of opposition, a symbol of rejection of the government's apparent indifference to regionalism and its antagonism towards Catalonia and all things Catalan, including the language.

The government has finally approved its Ley de Símbolos, the law of symbols. It is a law which doesn't only deal with the senyera, but it is how the senyera is being dealt with which is its main focus, because how the senyera was to be dealt with was the reason for the law ever having been proposed.

The law, therefore, bans the hanging of the senyera on public buildings. As such, opponents argue, it is a limit to freedom of expression and a return to the bad old days of Franco. One will wait and see if and how the law is flouted. And flouted, one imagines it will be.

Dredging up the Francoist past makes the law of symbols appear more than it really is. In truth, it is very petty. Stupid even. It is a law of symbols which is symbolic in revealing the difficulties which the government has in being able to accept criticism of its policies. The very acts of hanging out the senyera might also have been considered rather petty, but for those who have done so, these acts have not been.

But how far have these acts been representative of an expression of nationalism - Catalan nationalism? For some, they will have been, but for many others, they won't have been. They will have been merely acts of defiance and opposition. By banning the senyera, the government is achieving what it had hoped it could put an end to. The ban is stupid because it increases the potential for Catalan nationalism to take hold in Mallorca not reduce it. Exposure to the flag. Exposure to the symbol. Even if it cannot now appear on public buildings. Nationalist identity grows. It's a bad law.

Photo: From "Ultima Hora". A senyera bow at the secondary school in Marratxi.

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