Raising All Kinds of Flags

The past week or so saw a firestorm of discussion about racism, and embedded within that was another firestorm of discussion about whether it’s disrespectful to kneel during the national anthem. But generally speaking, the fervor is not so much about the anthem itself, it’s about the flag, as Drew Brees so unfortunately (but in the end, maybe fortunately) stated. Of course I have a pretty firm view on this – but before we get to that, what if we take a step back and learn a little more about flags?

First, I personally had no idea how many different parts a typical flag has. The part of a flag nearest the flagpole is called the hoist, which is also the term for the height of the flag. The opposite end is called the fly, which is also the term for the length of the flag. Usually the fly is longer than the hoist, but not always (I’m looking at you, Switzerland). The largest portion of the flag itself is called the field. Quite often, there is something important in the upper corner nearest the hoist, and that is called the canton. So, on the American flag, the stripes make up the field, and the stars make up the canton. Flags are often attached to flagstaffs (that one shouldn’t have been surprising), the top of which are called trucks (that one should). The cord that keeps the flag on the flagstaff is called the halyard. Here endeth the lesson.

There is no question that the earliest flags, and most flags since then, have had some fairly strong relationship to the military. Flags likely date back to Southeast Asia (both India and China), a thousand years BC. Back then, the fall of the flag typically meant the defeat of the army carrying it. The earliest Islamic nations played a major role in the evolution of flags, which eventually made their way to major usage in Europe during the Middle Ages. Flags continued to have importance for all varieties of reasons on land, but they became particularly important at sea, as a means of communicating prior to any peaceful (or not) engagement. Perhaps the most famous is the white flag signaling surrender (or a complete lack of imagination). But a yellow flag signified someone onboard had yellow fever. And of course a red flag meant you probably shouldn’t get emotionally involved with the captain. Ok I made that one up.

National flags are relatively new to the flag scene, and they have a lot of shared history. Denmark has one of the oldest European designs – the simple cross, which has different variations across all the other Scandinavian nations. England came up with the red Cross of Saint George in the 13th century, and that is still the central element of the modern British Union Jack flag (Scotland’s Cross of Saint Andrew and Ireland’s Cross of Saint Patrick form the other elements). The Union Jack was incorporated into a lot of other flags around the globe, what with the British having been a bit imperial for quite some time. It was even, as you might expect, prominent on a number of early colonial flags in what would later become the United States.

Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the origins of the American flag, although the traditional stories are questionable at best. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, which created the first version of the Stars and Stripes, and we still celebrate Flag Day on June 14 each year (although that didn’t become official until Woodrow Wilson said so in the 20th century). Even in 1777, the flag was primarily intended to declare oneself at sea. There were all kinds of variations in the original Stars and Stripes, and the legend of Betsy Ross was muddled into that nearly a century later by one of her descendants. Once it finally settled down along with our fledgling nation, the American flag began the semi-regular schedule of updates when new states were admitted (often dealing with them in groups). It did originally have thirteen stars in addition to its thirteen stripes, both signifying the thirteen original colonies which became states. Here’s an interesting tidbit: a while back we went through the Amendments to our Constitution – of which there have been 27. There have also been 27 designs to the United States flag – driven entirely by the increasing number of states (and therefore stars). In that regard, we’ve had our current flag since 1960 (the year following Hawaii’s admission to the Union), and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

The American flag remained largely a military symbol until the Civil War, at which point it morphed into a symbol of national unity. That built momentum that ultimately culminated in the National Flag Code, which was generated on Flag Day, 1923. It became law a mere 19 years later. This code includes guidelines on how to display, fold, and dispose of the flag. Some of these guidelines are interesting in and of themselves. For example, the flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, a configuration I have regularly seen with enormous flags at football games. It should always be permitted to fall freely – however this was given an exception with the Apollo landings, since there was no lunar wind to unfurl it.

Despite the Flag Code, it is unconstitutional to prohibit desecration of the flag, however you might define that. This was determined by the Supreme Court in 1990, when the ruling on United States v. Eichman determined that such acts are an expression of free speech, protected by the First Amendment. This ironically seems to root back to when the flag was first characterized as an important symbol of our nation in the 1860’s. When the flag first became a symbol of America the nation, it also became fair game for philosophical discussion, which in our country must be permitted to run its course. As just one consequence, there is much debate over what constitutes disrespect of the flag, but that is ultimately the point: since there is no objective “right answer” on what the flag means to all of us (because it means something unique to each of us), there can be no objective “right answer” on what constitutes disrespect of it. Which makes it even more American than you had even thought.

In the last post, we talked about the Fermi Paradox. What we have here initially appears to be the Flag Paradox: the flag, among many other important things, is a symbol of our right to do whatever we want to it as an exercise in free speech. So if we kneel during the anthem, or even if we burn the flag, we are doing precisely what it represents we should do. It’s not surprising that makes some heads explode. But blind reverence of flags and symbols ultimately does little to protect freedom, as was made clear with different flags and symbols in 1930’s Germany. What deserves respect is not the cloth itself, it is the fundamental freedom and rights that cloth represents. Consider this: if every flag in the entire nation spontaneously combusted, would it change any of our laws or freedoms? While that would undoubtedly be both a literal and a figurative firestorm, I think you know the answer.

The best part is, we would always be able to sew together more flags and begin the debate anew.

It’s high time all flags be converted to circles.

Lunch with Enrico

In the middle of a pandemic, it’s fair to ask why I’ve spent the last several posts in this blog trying to calculate how many other civilizations are out there in the galaxy. One perfectly good reason is to talk about something else for a change. But now I’m going to ruin that and tie it right back to the pandemic.

COVID-19 is only the latest threat to large numbers of humans. Like some other threats, there is an element of COVID-19 we had no ability to control. But also like most other threats, we typically don’t make things better by our actions. And of course we have come up with threats entirely of our own making – like global thermonuclear warfare, for example. Not all of these threats would extinguish our species if realized, but some of them could. We’ve seen in our tour of the Drake equation that mass extinctions have happened at remarkably regular intervals on Earth – often wiping out a very high percentage of species at once. Earth has undergone its own dramatic changes to the climate, but we are the first species to consciously introduce our own changes, and we don’t know where the tipping points are. Meanwhile, at some point, another rock will hit our planet, just as one did millions of years ago to spell the dinosaurs’ doom. Depending on the size of that rock, we might survive, but we also might not.

So there is a very real question about how long we will be around on this world. Will we last long enough to venture out into deeper space? Will we get a chance to colonize Mars? And then perhaps visit other star systems? And maybe even encounter intelligent life on other worlds? What kind of imprint will humanity leave on the galaxy when all is said and done? Or will we leave nothing more than a hundred or so years of garbled radio and TV broadcasts that dissipate into thinner and indecipherable wisps as they spread into the void?

To answer those questions, it sure would be nice to know how other civilizations have fared. By the time we got to the next-to-the-last step in the Drake equation, we had estimated that once every three years in our galaxy, a star is formed that will one day see a civilization rise up on one of its worlds and send signals into space. So at least going in, it seems like there ought to be a lot of civilizations that get to that point. The last factor in the Drake equation – how long a typical civilization lasts – is the big wild card, and the one we are grappling with ourselves. Should we be worried that we haven’t heard from anyone else as yet?

Now, there is always the notion that we *have* heard – maybe even from a *lot* of them – and that aliens and/or our government(s) have covered that up. I’m not going to be arrogant enough to completely dismiss that possibility. There is a chance – however small one might choose to characterize it – that just such a thing is happening here and now. If so, there are two things we can say: 1) We were bang on with our Drake equation, and 2) There isn’t a damned thing any of us can do about it. If the governments of our world are airtight enough to have kept us from the light – and given their incompetence in many other matters, I would be rather surprised – then that is likely to continue for quite some time. If it’s the aliens themselves that are keeping us in the dark, well, basically same point, rinse and repeat.

Let’s explore the alternative instead – that we simply haven’t heard from another civilization yet, and whether that is a problem. Sometime back in the year 1950, the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi was having lunch with a few other intellectual giants, and the conversation arrived at the question of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Depending on the account, Fermi eventually exclaimed something along the lines of “but where are they?” That question eventually came to be known as the Fermi paradox: it would seem (as we have calculated in this series of posts) that there ought to be lots of intelligent life out there, and yet despite considerable attention and effort, we have not found any – nor has it found us, as far as we can tell.

There are different categories of dealing with this paradox. First – perhaps we were simply wrong in the Drake equation. Maybe what happened on Earth is extremely rare. Or maybe the fact that we’re so close to the edge of our Goldilocks zone – to the point where a lot of our water is vapor in the atmosphere – has made dwelling on land a possibility when it usually isn’t elsewhere. Would creatures like dolphins be able to develop space communications technology on a world completely covered by water?

Another line of thinking is that the last term in the Drake equation – how long a civilization survives – is truly constrained to a few hundred years because intelligent life always ends up destroying itself (either deliberately or by exhausting all available resources). Yet another thought is that many civilizations don’t want to communicate or be discovered. And yet another thought is that other civilizations have indeed found us, but they are more advanced and they don’t want to disturb our natural evolution toward whatever end.

There are so many different directions to go with all this. For myself, it would ultimately seem to boil down to a combination of two main things:

  1. The “lottery” of speaking and listening between civilizations: we cannot transmit deliberate signals in every direction at once and/or all the time, and we cannot listen to signals in every direction at once and/or all the time. Any other civilization is in the same boat, and each of them is at a different point in their respective history where they may or may not have the ability and/or the inclination to send a signal. So the likelihood of them transmitting at us and us listening from that exact direction at the precise moment when it arrives actually turns out to be pretty small, even if there are millions in the galaxy at any given moment.
  2. Somewhat related to (1) – the commitment. The amount of effort we have expended on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is miniscule compared to the effort we have expended on other things. It would take orders of magnitude more effort – and commitments of life at the scale of generations by the participants – to actually go out there and visit other star systems. Meanwhile, we have only sent a handful of purposeful signals out there to reveal our own existence.

I guess what I’m saying here is that in my opinion, the Fermi paradox isn’t a paradox at all – we should expect finding another civilization to be just as difficult as it seems, even if there are millions of them in our galaxy alone. But if it’s important enough to us, perhaps we should ramp up on item (2) above – our commitment. The most famous organization exploring these questions – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute – receives zero funding from the Government. It is entirely financed by private donations. It would seem like this endeavor would be worthy of more systematic support than that – finding such hope from somewhere and someone else might be the most impactful thing we could do as a species to redouble our focus and work our way through the variety of crises we face today.

For now, it is my own hope that someday, we or our descendants will have a light chuckle at the idea a brilliant physicist once had to ask “but where are they?”

Finding extraterrestrial life would be even sweeter