Follow the Flag

Monday, October 30, 2000


alking through the Diplomatic Lobby of the State Department some time ago, I paused to admire an impressive display celebrating Poland’s national achievement. It was mounted to honor the visit of the Polish prime minister. One jarring sight, however, was Poland’s flag upside down, a move that turned it into the flag of Indonesia. I hurried to telephone the Polish Desk, and within seconds a frantic young foreign service officer was scrambling up the side of the exhibit to set the flag aright, for the prime minister’s motorcade was on its way.

Communist Symbolism

The politics of entire peoples are expressed and manipulated through the imponderables that float in cloth at the end of a pole, as was vividly illustrated with the collapse of communism. Day after day between 1989 and 1991 the world’s media pictured crowds in one Eastern European capital after another ecstatically displaying their country’s flag with the communist symbol of hammer and sickle ripped out. The climax came when the Soviet Union’s red banner above the Kremlin was replaced by the white, blue, and red stripes of tsarist Russia, which had become the popular symbol of protesters against the communist regime.

Where communist flags still fly, communism still holds sway, most notably in the People’s Republic of China, with its symbol of the party (big star) shining over the politically approved “classes” (peasants, workers, petite bourgeoisie, and patriotic capitalists, so-called). Perpetually antagonizing to Beijing is the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan), with its distinctive twelve-pointed white circle—a symbol evocative of Sun Yat-Sen’s democratic revolution as well as of the White Lotus societies, the secret movements that emerged by night, closing up by day. The long history of such underground political opposition in China helps explain the PRC’s near-hysterical determination to eradicate today’s Falun Gong movement. Until the PRC alters the design of its flag, it is unlikely that Taiwan will ever voluntarily agree to reunite with the mainland.

Similarly, as long as North Korea and Vietnam retain their communist banners, the party hierarchy will run the show and freedom will be suppressed, no matter how much foreign capital is invested there.

Cuba’s flag is an exception. Castro never “communized” it, apparently unwilling to dismiss a symbol so fundamentally associated with Cuba’s turn-of-the-century struggle against Spanish colonial rule.

Flags Abroad

If flags are so potent in meaning, a quick world tour to see what’s happening to flags in some hot (and not-so-hot) spots may be revealing and call forth a few rough predictions.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s unseemly pullout from South Lebanon, where for years it had been denounced for violating Lebanon’s territorial sovereignty, brought not Lebanon’s national cedar tree flag being raised but the flag of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia forces in the south. Planting this fresh and vivid symbol comes close to formalizing Iran as a frontline state in the war to destroy Israel, a role that neither Lebanon nor Syria is capable of dislodging. This dramatic development on the anti-Israel side comes in the context of “post-Zionist” discussions inside Israel, including arguments for changing Israel’s flag into a supposedly less defiant version. The flag will not be changed, but the very fact of such talk compels attention. There have been other Middle East flag changes of note. Most Arab flags are variations on the theme of black, red, white, and green, representing the two greatest Arab caliphates of the past: Umayyad (the religion of the Prophet) and the Abbasid (pan-Arabism). In recent years, however, some flags have given greater emphasis to religion. Colonel Qaddafi made sure no one could get more symbolically Islamic than Libya when he decreed a solid green flag. When President Bush declared his intention to throw Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein declared that he was adding the call “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great) to Iraq’s red, white, and black tricolor. With the Palestine Liberation Organization in growing tension with the fundamentalist group Hamas, an unlikely but telling move by Yassir Arafat would be to write a Koranic inscription on his familiar pan-Arab—colored flag.

Great Britain provides flag watchers with rich material. When the complicated haggling over which flag(s) would fly over Northern Ireland’s government buildings resulted last spring in acceptance that, on occasion at least, Britain’s Union Jack might come down and the Republic of Ireland’s tricolor go up, a monumentally important threshold was crossed. Indeed, our flag predictor theory would indicate that it is only a matter of time before Dublin replaces London as Ulster’s capital. The glorious flag of Britain itself, in the devolving era of Prime Minister Blair, is being deconstructed before our eyes. In Scotland we see the blue and white cross of St. Andrew out on its own. And in response, first glimpsed at soccer matches, is the reemergence of the nearly forgotten English flag, the red cross of St. George on a white field. Welsh griffin flags now hang high in the terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may be passing into history.

Other flags just in: In November 1999 the long-awaited referendum on Australia’s political status soundly defeated the effort to end the symbolic rule of the British monarchy. If Britain’s Union Jack is losing ground in the British Isles, it will remain part of Australia’s national flag for some time to come; all those newspaper contests inviting readers to design a new Australian flag have been shelved.

Bosnia, struggling to make sense of its pieced-together Dayton Accords blueprint for nationhood, failed repeatedly to reach agreement on its new national flag. But a design was accepted and run up the allocated flagpole on United Nations Plaza, where it still flaps. Maybe Bosnia will hold together—at least as long as it remains under U.S./NATO military occupation.

Canada’s maple leaf flag, despite a lot of fleurs-de-lis waving in Quebec throughout the 1990s, seems to go from strength to strength, an omen that the country has weathered separatist fever and will hold together. Each of its regions seems to foster a distinctive identity, which makes the whole seem ever more essential as a ground for such diversity.

The Congo, which was called Zaire under the dictator Mobutu, has not only returned to its original name (elaborated to the Democratic Republic of the Congo) but also to a version of the country’s first postcolonial flag. But this design, a big gold star on blue, is intriguingly close to the flag of the justly reviled Belgian Congo. What this means is anyone’s guess, but it definitely looks more internationally respectable than Mobutu’s symbol of an arm brandishing a torch.

The European Union’s new flag looks like nothing so much as the jack that flies at the bows of U.S. Navy warships (a circle of stars on a blue field). When puzzled questions resulted, the official answers did nothing to clear up the design’s meaning. More recently, the designer has claimed he based it on the traditional iconography of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, the flag was officially adopted on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. A worthy statement, if so, but a more likely interpretation is that the EU wanted a design similar to the iconography of the American superpower. Or, alternatively, the EU doesn’t quite know what it is doing, a view that the behavior of its other most prominent symbol, the euro, seems to support.

South Africa’s new, postapartheid flag is a striking and unambiguous statement of political power transformed. The colors of the African National Congress form a spearhead driving straight through the old government’s Dutch-origin tricolor of orange, white, and blue. Few comments about this visual assertion of triumph have been heard, indicating that this revolution is solidifying nicely.

And Here at Home

South Carolina has gone through a flag controversy that gained national and even international attention. Now that the Confederate flag has come down from the state capitol the clamor has subsided. Why its supporters felt that flying the Confederate flag beneath the flag of the victorious Union honored what it represents is something of a puzzle. The decision to display it in that fashion was made in the 1960s, a time when political judgment was notably lacking. But controversies over flags are seldom settled without a cost or backlash. Here in New England, I take my single shell out on the historic Housatonic River from time to time. A few miles downstream from the boathouse is a small summer fisherman’s cottage. For years the American flag flew every day from a flagpole set on a spit of land in front of the shack; it was a landmark of sorts, a sign that you had rowed far enough and it was time to head back upstream. But the last time I sculled that far, Old Glory was gone and the flagpole with it. Instead, painted on the concrete retaining wall was the Confederate battle flag.

What is the meaning of the American flag, the Stars and Stripes, anyway? The crucial question of all modern politics turns on the relative influence—the “choice of inheritance” as Burke put it—of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. The distinction between these two major democratic traditions can be seen in their flags, the most tangible symbols of the two nations. Take the flag of revolutionary France. The striking simplicity and uniformity of its continuous blocks of red, white, and blue reflect the impulse to construct government on a direct, centralized model. Further, the flag draws attention to itself as a potentially mass-produced item. Any man, woman, or child could gather the appropriate fabrics and stitch together a flag. And as this flag could be produced by the masses, so it seems it was meant to be carried by the masses: it looks to be eminently exportable as an international symbol (as it was to be imitated throughout the world), an invitation to radicals anywhere.

Meanwhile, the American flag carries a recognizable national insignia. The contrived nature of its design is to be noted above all; it was designed, not incidentally, on the basis of the Washington family coat of arms in England. It is not a flag you can easily make yourself; far more likely you buy it from a flag-making company, making it your own private property. The arrangement of stars and stripes is so dependent on time and place that there must occur a change in design whenever certain conditions are met. A very different sentiment from the French tricolor is manifested here, one that chose to bind itself forever to particular historical conditions. It was a flag to be flown by private citizens or carried by troops, not masses. Its invitation to democracy is based on establishing itself as an example rather than as one seeking immediate adherents.

The American flag speaks an international language, but it is national and patriotic above all. Patriotic is not a fashionable word these days, but that’s what Old Glory is: evocative and respectful of the past, vibrantly symbolic of the present, and a reminder that the nation is held in trust for Americans of the future.