Tuesday, August 05, 2003

The Flag

The only country in which I feel comfortable with the national flag is Denmark. There, the sight of that long, festive red and white banner floating ubiquitously from every other garden pole invokes nary a hint of chauvinism. On the contrary, it indicates the same sort of confident pride as the family crest - a polite, emblematic nod at history - no more, no less. No Danish civilian would ever dream of saluting the flag. Absurd idea! It’s just an atavistic totem, with no more contemporary significance than the star on top of a Christmas tree.
All isms lead to conflict, none more so than nationalism, but there's still clearly a lot of concern - especially in the US - amongst those people who vigorously opposed the recent illegal invasion of Iraq not to appear 'unpatriotic.' Obviously, it's very easy for the apes to point and jeer at the parades of protestors and call them 'traitors', but there's really no point in proudly holding up the flag and claiming that you can be a patriot and still oppose your government. Evidently – George has spoken to Donald and Donald has run it past Amoco - you can't. You’re either with them or you're a traitor in their eyes.
The important thing is to recognise the distinction between your government and your culture. I, for example, love my country, but despise the stubborn residue of hereditary influence (the aristocracy) and the fatally-ingrown class-system that enabled such socially catastrophic events as the twelve-year hegemony of Margaret Thatcher: she and her kind (amongst whom I now, shockingly, include Poodle Blair) represent, to me, the unacceptable underbelly of the society that produced the abolitionists, the trade unionists, the Quakers, the Beatles, Monty Python, Radiohead, tea-bags, and fish and chips.
Nationalistic pride - and patriotism - is what governments prefer a passive electorate to feel in lieu of thinking - and of challenging their authority from a position of informed debate. Patriotism is obedience. And, since nationalism has to be kept simplistic in order to retain the lowest common denominator of social attention, the flag becomes fetishised as a venerated icon of - what, exactly?
The assembly hall of my old school was decorated with a dozen or so moth-eaten old flags - nothing compared with the shrapnel-shredded festoons of faded regimental banners that proudly lined the choir of the Cathedral, where the Founders Day service was traditionally preceded by the annual ritual of parading the cadet corps flag and having it re-blessed by the incumbent bishop. The connection couldn't have been more clearly reinforced: church>flag : god>country.
In such a war-loving culture as the US, to be perceived as unpatriotic becomes a sort of secular blasphemy. Burning the flag is an affront as heinous as (more heinous than?) spitting on the cross.
In the UK, the union flag - the union jack - was appropriated long ago by the far right: it is now a symbol of racism, xenophobic insularity, anti-semitism, homophobia, and gut-fascism. There are some in the US who are still trying hard to believe that their flag 'represents' something noble and right - something to do with 'freedom'. Fine - as long as you believe that 'freedom' means having bartered the right to choose between fifty labels on the same box containing the same product for the right to voice your opposition to a barely legal authority that serves only the wealthy.
The barbers pole and the three flags of the US, the UK and Denmark share the same basic colours for the same reason - they both refer back to a time when blood-letting was considered a normal way to solve internal problems in the body and the body-politic.
Denmark has moved on.
Time for us to do the same.

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