26 Jul 2017

The powerful symbolism of flags

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:07 pm on 26 July 2017

The power of a flag is clear after a two-year debate raged around the New Zealand flag, retained as the national emblem with 56 percent of the referenda vote in favour of the British ensign.

In British journalist Tim Marshall’s new book A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols, he explores the origin stories of flags, often born in violence, and the stories behind identity, culture, and nationhood.

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Photo: AFP / FILE

Marshall told Jesse Mulligan the use of flags as we recognise them today stretches back about 3000 years to China.

‘’Now, we’d always had symbols and painted cloth, perhaps hung on a wall. Now with silk you could paint it in your colours and take it long distance, carry it into battle.

‘’That was the game changer.

‘’Chinese took it on the Silk Route. The Arabs picked it up about 2000 years ago and about ten or eleven hundred years ago, during the Crusades, the Europeans encountered this new idea of signalling and identification and that led to heraldry, which led to your rather nice flag, eventually,’’ he says.

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Journalist Tim Marshall. Photo: supplied

Identity underpinned the drive to research the study of flags - vexillology - and write a book.

Behind each flag, there is a story of a country and its emotional buttons, he says.

The day after 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers, three New York firefighters spontaneously erected an American flag atop a mound of the rubble.

‘’The starkness of the blues and the reds and the whites against that grey background with these sort of haggard firefighters became a symbol of unity for the Americans.

‘’You can make an argument that America doesn’t always necessarily live up to its proclaimed values, but those values are there woven into its flag.

‘’We can have dim views about nationalism but there are times when we need these visual things that bring us together when often we do need to be together.’’

How unusual was the New Zealand flag debate?

The riot broke out after criminal factions clashed and some cell blocks were invaded by rivals.

 A prisoner waves a white flag - the universal symbol of surrender - at the Alcacuz Penitentiary, Brazil, after a riot. Photo: AFP

‘’Very. Usually these things are either lost in history or legends.’’

For a government to ask its citizens whether they wanted a flag change was extremely unusual.

‘’It went to the core of what you think you are.

‘’My personal view is that you voted against changing because of your demographics and if you hold this referendum again in 20 to 35, 40 years, your demographics will have changed that there are no longer enough people with a fond memory back to the old land.

‘’I think it will change next time.’’

Sovereign nations have free reign over flag design. But there are limits to the acceptance of an emblem by other countries if there is a political or historical dimension.

Macedonia, for example, was problematic, referring to the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia and a region of northern Greece. In recent times, this became a political battle, with overtones stretching back to Alexander the Great.

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 Macedonia's sun burst flag. Photo: Flagpedia

‘’Because the Greeks claim him as Greek and the Macedonians claim him as Macedonian, the Greeks said to everybody…’do not recognise the name of this country and do not recognise that as the flag’ and they were forced to call themselves ‘Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia’ and they changed the flag.’’

Marshall's book was also inspired by a rise in nationalism and identity politics, such as the charged use of the Confederate flag in the southern United States.

‘’It was never a big deal until the 1940s when various racist parties began to adopt this flag as a symbol.

‘’In and of itself it’s not necessarily a racist flag. It is still problematic to have it flying on a government building.’’

The far-right in the United Kingdom hijacked the England flag – the St George’s cross – in the 1970s and 1980s, especially on the terraces of football grounds.

And many flag origin stories feature violence.

‘’I think it’s pretty much in most nation state flags there’s some connection to violence.’’

Mozambique has a Kalashnikov on its flag, the Italy flag was originally used by a militia fighting Napoleon, and stripes on the American flag represent the original 13 colonies.

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The Mozambique flag. Photo: Flagpedia

Another example was the rainbow flag, which established itself as a global identifier for the gay community in 40 years.

Marshall said the reason for the use of a white flag to surrender was lost in time but was possibly derived from an ancient Chinese custom and the flag of mourning 3000 years ago.

That is a theory but what is fact is every culture in the world recognises a white flag.

‘’It can be seen at a distance. You can see it when you’re moving. You don’t need to speak any language or recognise any symbols.

‘’It just is what it is.’’

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Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

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