Flags and the politics of fantasy
I thought about my problems with shirts when I read the other day about proposals to give New Zealand and Australia new flags. Kiwi Republicans are convinced that the fondness of our sports fans for the silver fern reflects a desire to dump the current ensign, which cedes a quarter of its territory to the Union Jack, a flag that isn't even acceptable in large parts of the British motherland these days. For his part, Australian historian John Blaxland has redesigned his country's flag, replacing the Jack with a boomerang, and filling a large star with two hundred and fifty dots, each of which, apparently, represents a language spoken in Oz. On both sides of the Tasman, Republicans have long argued that a change of flag will help to consolidate a new national image, and ameliorate some of the problems created by colonialism and cultural cringe.
But a new flag can no more transform a nation that a new shirt could transform my torso. The economic and political inequality, racism, and cultural conservatism which are features of Australasian societies are the product of history, sociology, and economics. They can't blow away in the wind that puffs the chest of a new national flag. A flag can't feed poor kids, or pay steep tuition fees, or find anybody a job.
National flags exist not to express but to dissolve differences. A successful flag features a symbol or pattern which is simple and shapely enough to be immediately identifiable, and vague enough to sponsor a range of positive interpretations. The red sun of Japan's famously elegant ensign might symbolise that country's emperor, but it also represents, for many of its admirers, life, summer, authority, and - sitting as it does on a field of white - purity. Because it symbolises a landscape they all claim, the maple leaf can charm indigenous, Anglo-Saxon, and Quebecois Canadians.
One or two of the alternative flags invented by New Zealanders avoid an over-prescriptive clutter. The silver fern might seem a suitably simple and open symbol, but the black field behind it runs the risk of connoting mourning, piracy, Al Qaeda, and anarchism. The fern itself becomes, at a certain distance from the flagpole, a white feather, which many cultures consider a symbol of cowardice.
With its combination of depth and brightness, and its association with those two ancient symbols of infinity, the sea and the sky, blue can be a heady colour. The visionary canvases of Yves Klein, and the final film of Derek Jarman, which offered audiences an unrelentingly blue screen, are evidence of the effect the colour has had on artists. The red strips on Frizzell's flag reinforce its illusion of depth: they might be the frame of a window through which we are staring at an endless sky on a January evening. The blue field of our flag communicates a feeling of space and possibility which, however counterfeit, resonates with the people of a sparsely populated colony at the edge of the world.
Flag design becomes more fun, and perhaps also more enlightening, when it focuses not on the propaganda needs of states but on iconoclastic visions. The British Republican flag was designed in the 1830s, when the Chartist movement threatened to bring the democratic spirit of the French revolution to cities like London and Manchester, and was apparently flown for the last time from a handful of windows during the silver jubilee of of George V in 1935.
Armenian nationalists seem to have first claim to the Martian ensign.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]