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.

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