Small Nations, Big Feelings

From Public Books:

In March 1930, American author Marcia Davenport arrived at Prague’s Woodrow Wilson Station. She knew not a single Czech word or person, yet she “fell in love” with this newly formed European state. She cherished the ritualistic performance of village festivals, the cautious drives through city streets barely wide enough for cars, the echoing chatter of women in marketplaces, even the smell—“a rich compound of coal smoke, roasting coffee, beer, smoked pork, and frying onions.” For the next twenty years, Davenport returned to Czechoslovakia almost annually, each time amassing more knowledge and friends. During World War II, she worked tirelessly from the US to raise funds for the invaded state and disseminate accurate information about Czechoslovakia on the American airwaves. Her involvement became so intense that she even struck up a romantic (and ultimately tragic) affair with the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk. A faraway place truly became this New Yorker’s “second mother country.”

We often think of those dramatic decades leading up to World War II as a kind of battle between instinctive nationalism and stubborn isolation on the one hand, and a highfalutin universalism and abstract international idealism on the other. The reality, however—at least for Davenport—was less binary. She found her way into international engagement not by walking the halls of the League of Nations but by embracing the intimacy of daily life in a foreign nation. Reminders of a shared human experience and universal political ideologies have their place. But exposure to the particularities of domestic life within nations can cultivate an international perspective.

Feeling patriotism for a foreign country is, when you think about it, odd. Usually our love for country is for our own country, and we roll our eyes at any student who returns from study abroad still wearing a beret. Of course, we care when wars or disasters beset other countries. But we usually do so because of universalistic values, because we care for humanity wherever it may lie. The sort of fervor we feel for our own country typically stops at the border. It’s therefore hard to recall a recent time when many Americans have waved flags for a country that isn’t their own, or with which they didn’t have a diasporic connection. Then this February, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

Already in March, the president of the National Flag Company, Artie Schaller III, spoke to the New York Times on the skyrocketing demand for Ukrainian flags in the US. “This would be the biggest increase in volume for another nation’s flag that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Schaller observed. “I can only compare it to—in my time—9/11, for just how quickly people are willing to show support and are using a flag to do that.” American enthusiasm for Ukraine extended beyond flags: for months, Instagram feeds have filled with recipes for traditional borscht; choirs for Kyiv have appeared on Saturday Night Live; and a small town in upstate New York has loyally followed the daily trials and tribulations of one Ukrainian man through his column for their local newspaper.

It seems most Americans have rejected Putin’s effort to present the war in Ukraine as an ideological proxy battle between East and West. Instead, they have elected to support Ukraine in a way that looks more like Davenport’s: an embrace of the intimate, the local, the very, very national.

. . . .

Although today’s uptick in foreign-flag purchases may be the biggest that Mr. Schaller has seen, it is not entirely without precedent. In the years of crises clustering around World War II, passionate attachment to a foreign nation became prevalent among internationally minded Americans. The fates of the world’s “small powers,” often referred to as “small nations”—including China (especially the Manchurian region), Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia), Poland, Yugoslavia, and yes, Czechoslovakia—all interested America’s burgeoning cosmopolitans. The attention showered upon these seemingly provincial places did not derive only from the state’s relative position in a broader geopolitical calculation. It came from a fascination—as Davenport experienced in Prague—with the components of a state that give it claim to nationhood: internal complexities, culture, and traditions.

. . . .

Davenport’s fascination with a small European state might have remained a private eccentricity, had it not been for the rapidly unfolding catastrophe of World War II. The infamous Munich Agreement in 1938 gave her personal affair with Czechoslovakia a political hue. Increasingly, she came to see Czechoslovakia not only as a place she loved in and of itself but also as a stand-in for her growing international vision and commitments. When reflecting on the war years, Davenport recalled that “the fate of the small country became common cause with every man and woman who stood up to be counted against Hitler.” She volunteered for Czechoslovak-specific relief organizations and also for groups with more global aims, including The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which lobbied the US government to join in the global fight against fascists. In this way, personal affection for the particularities of a people evolved into a commitment to international ideals.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG doesn’t know if the American habit described in the OP has counterparts in other nations, but one factor that may trigger this in the United States is that a very large portion of the current population is descended from ancestors who were born and lived in other nations.

Plus, PG thinks its fairly common in many places for people to instinctively have or develop an emotional attachment to the underdog — the David who is confronting Goliath, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, etc. Even the Three Little Pigs and Little Read Riding Hood vs. the Big Bad Wolf are examples.

1 thought on “Small Nations, Big Feelings”

  1. Careful about maligning Mr Wolf: Bigby has a temper and the son of the North Wind is no lightweight. To say nothing about his wife, Ms White, and his kids. 😀

    (And the pigs were no angels but revolutionaries.)

    It’s been long enough since Disney’s bowdlerized imitation went off the air that HBO should consider bringing the real thing to live action. FABLES is as good as SANDMAN but would be much cheaper to adapt. And way better.

    The series spawned spinoffs, a video game, and a prose novel.

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