Opinion: What value do we attach to our national symbols?POSTED: 07/1/14 1:32 AM
By Fabian Ade Badejo
Symbols are the sometimes the cryptic representation of a people’s values, ideals, and aspirations. They are the Morse codes by which our history, culture, and highest achievements are transmitted. No society can function properly without its own set of symbols because they are the focal point around which the people are united. To the extent to which those symbols are valued, to that same extent would members of that society feel a sense of belonging, of kinship, of even patriotism?
As we celebrate Emancipation Day, on July 1st, it behooves us to reflect on some of these symbols that represent our peoplehood. What value do we attach to our national symbols?
We could begin with the very name of the island, but for expediency sake, let’s start instead with the St. Maarten flag and Coat of Arms since these are considered among the highest official symbols of any people. How often do we see the St. Maarten flag flying on cars and in front of buildings, (including sometimes, government buildings or those of government agencies), with its colors faded, the cloth tattered, looking uncared for?
And the Coat of Arms? Not even at the entrance to the Parliament Building is this displayed! Oh, the Parliament! Where else in the world is Parliament located above stores? At least, they say there are plans to erect a befitting building for the people’s business sometime in the future at a yet to be determined location.
Naturally, we have a national motto: “semper pro grediens” (Always moving forward), which many of us do not know about and which has not sunken deep enough into the national psyche, if there is any such thing yet.
One important national symbol we still lack is a national anthem, but we won’t go into that because of the confusion surrounding it and the contentious nature of the matter. So, let’s take a quick look at the other “abstract” symbols. We have a national flower, (the yellow sage), a national tree (the flamboyant or July Tree) which we equate with Emancipation and also a national bird – the Brown Pelican. How do we relate to these symbols? What value do we attach to them?
It was the 19th Century American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, John Dewey, who famously said: “When men think and believe in one set of symbols and act in ways which are contrary to their professed and conscious ideas, confusion and insincerity are bound to result.” He could as well have been talking about how we react to and value our own symbols on St. Maarten.
Let’s take, for example, the recent hullabaloo about the bronze pelicans at the airport roundabout. We are talking about three huge bronze sculptures deemed too expensive by certain individuals whose knowledge and appreciation of art is suspect at best. What value should we attach, even in monetary terms, to our national symbols? What value do constitutional monarchies in Europe – such as in the UK, Spain, The Netherlands, Sweden – attach to these institutions which are symbols of their national unity? Even at times of severe economic recession as they have witnessed recently, do they ever consider their monarchies too expensive to maintain, even as they question their relevance in this modern day and age?
But perhaps, such analogies are too far-fetched. Perhaps, what best reflects how we value our national symbols can be found at the marketplace in town, just a stone’s throw from Parliament.
At both the Backstreet end of the market, and the Clem Labega Square entrance to the marketplace are structures erected with the name: “Philipsburg Market Place”. At either side of this are stone pillars with the national bird – the Pelican – in concrete. Unfortunately, one of the concrete pelicans at the Backstreet end of the market place has mysteriously disappeared while the other one has been beheaded (see attached photograph). This has remained so for several months, according to some of the market women.
What is fascinating about this is the fact that practically ALL our Members of Parliament have to pass in front of it on their way to or from Parliament to conduct the “people’s business.” The same goes for our ministers whenever they have to appear in Parliament. The same also goes for our government officials and other top advisers who have some kind of business or the other in Parliament. It speaks volumes about how much they value our national symbols that none of them has noticed this sad state of affairs with the concrete pelicans.
This brings to mind what the 19th Century French novelist, Joséphin Péladan, said: “The absence of symbols in our life debases it as much as any government can…” Need I add anything to that?
What can we deduce from this nonchalant, disrespectful, and outright disgraceful attitude to our national symbols by those who should be the very first to uphold their integrity? That they believe that the people deserve just cheap and poor representations of their national symbols? That it doesn’t matter what state of care or disrepair such representations may be?
As we celebrate Emancipation Day, maybe we should reflect on these issues and ask ourselves: what value do we attach to our national symbols, and how is this reflected in our treatment of them? After all, as the Victorian philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, a Scotsman once said, “By symbols, accordingly, is man guided and commanded, made happy, made wretched.” May we not be made more wretched by the way we relate to our national symbols?