Colin Firth now has Italian citizenship! Isn’t that amazing? It comes as a shock to think of that charming, erudite, upper-crust, fellow with the plummy accent becoming an Italian. We all think of him as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (yes, he has played two Darcys), or King George VI in The King’s Speech, or Harry Hart in Kingsman, so it’s no wonder we’ve got him tagged as the consummate Brit. But, of course, he is more than his acting roles. He is a husband and father of a family with dual Italian-British citizenship.
Even knowing this, my reaction to the news was emotional, not logical. For most of us, our national identity carries with it a lot of baggage. It isn’t only about a legal status, or the ability to work in any particular country, or where we own property. It’s a hard-wired connection to lots of history, traditions, customs, expectations, and a gazillion little social mores that we have spent a lifetime learning and accommodating. Knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner is just the tip of the iceberg.
I have very mixed feelings about national identity because I don’t fit easily into any nationality bucket. I was born and raised in England, emigrated to Canada in 1975, and starting spending winters in the United States in 2009, so I love and feel at home in all three places. When my husband and I came to Canada, he became a Canadian citizen four years later. It took me ten more years to take that plunge and now that I’m looking back on that, I wonder why I hesitated. I think it was because my sense of self was so thoroughly tied to my Englishness that I was afraid to shed the Englishness for fear of losing the self.
My decision to become a Canadian was made easier by the fact that Canada allows for dual-citizenship. That gave me enough emotional-logistical wiggle room to accept that, since I was not likely to return to live in the UK, and since I wanted to vote, it made sense to change my citizenship. Perhaps Colin Firth went through a similar thought process.
I get some of my hesitations about nationality from my father. A few years before I became a Canadian, my parents had visited and Dad had harrumphed at all the flags that were being displayed outside a Petro Canada gas station. For him, flags were indicative of ideals that separate peoples instead of bringing them together. He considered patriotic zeal to be a bad thing because, as he said, “Flags cause wars”. At home, he was active in helping new immigrants settle into homes in their neighborhood, so it wasn’t just a theoretical concern for him. It was personal. So, when looking at those flags he wondered aloud why a gas station needed to be so assertively patriotic. I did not have an answer for him.
As I write this, there is a lot of angst about American football players who choose to kneel instead of standing while the national anthem is being played. There is so much symbolism tied up in that sentence that it is hard to know where to begin to untangle it all. Some people think it is disrespectful not to stand, but I have no idea where that understanding comes from. Perhaps it is because most American school children cite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and so it has become ingrained in them that standing and facing the flag is the only right thing to do.
When I was a schoolgirl, we had assemblies every morning but I don’t remember if we sang the national anthem. It was more of a religious event, with a hymn or two. Now, though, I’m pretty sure that the hymns are gone from public school assemblies. Perhaps someone can tell me if British students sing the anthem every day. Canadian students sing O Canada at assemblies, but I don’t know if they do it every day. Regardless, it makes me wonder why schools and school systems have assumed that they have an obligation to encourage everyone to have a love of their country and to take pride in their flag.
Why does anyone care whether someone stands or kneels, or if they put their hand over their heart, or if they take off their hat, or if they simply sit and meditate? From today’s news, it is clear that a lot of people care, but I really don’t get it. Veterans did not go to war to fight so that people would respect the flag or the anthem. They used the flag as a symbol of the things they fought for: freedom, democracy, human rights. Standing for the anthem is just one way to show respect. There are many other ways to do that.
By the way, most of those people who are standing or kneeling for the anthem are not actually singing it. That, it seems to me, is something worth getting worked up about. If you can’t, don’t, or won’t sing the anthem, there is a disconnect between your attitude and the song, or the song and your ability to sing it. In the case of the American anthem, I think it’s just too difficult to sing—but that is only one of the problems I have with it. In any case, there are problems with most national anthems. Canada’s is clearly sexist, and all efforts to make easy fixes to it have so far been rejected. Britain’s anthem is all about royalty, which seems out of step with most British people’s desire these days not to be “reigned over” by anyone, especially the European Union.
We all really need to take a step back from our assumptions about flags, anthems, nationality, and citizenship and acknowledge that we have shifting allegiances. In Britain, sports fans can support first the local team, then the division champions and they can do this while simultaneously supporting an English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish team in international contests, and Great Britain in the Olympics. The same fan can wave various flags, depending on the event.
So, Mr. Firth, I wish you much joy in your new dual-citizenship. I hope that it brings you increased affiliations and affections and that you wave both the Italian and British flags with pride. Or, wave the Pride flag anywhere. That’s always an option.