Not All Flags Are Created Equal
Eddie Izzard has a short comedy sketch where he presents the history of the UK’s empire through a flag and a pistol. When imitating India and the UK, Izzard counters India’s protest at being colonized by saying:
“No flag, no country, you can’t have one!”
He begins the sketch by explaining that:
“We built up empires, we stole countries! That’s how you build an empire. We stole countries with the cunning use of flags.”
Despite this comedy sketch being, well, comedic and a very brief joke oversimplifying a vice like colonialism, there is still a lot to unpack and meaningfully discuss. The premise of the joke is that, on one hand, flags are how we solidify ourselves as a nation and on another hand, the point of an empire is the theft of another nation’s autonomy. When viewing colonial material, whether it be a joke at its expense, a play dissecting its character or an academic article looking at its history, etc… we should never view these issues being raised in a bubble. The play “Death of a King’s Horseman” by Wole Soyinka has been read in countless high school classes but even the author has warned against oversimplifying its colonial story, allowing for a deeper understanding of contemporary issues and hierarchies rooted throughout the world. Same too should this joke not be seen in isolation. Neo-colonization is a perpetuation of old systems of oppression and many carry over into our present, carrying the same flags above their heads while doing so.
At this stage, many nations have a flag elegantly displayed throughout the world for all to see, flags that hold within their colors, emblems and patterns, etc… the values of their nation and/or the history that led to their insurrection. The mentality of “no flag, no country, you can’t have one!” has become ingrained in the minds of our leaders and representatives but it often leaves those who are either threatened or falsely represented by these flags feeling like the only solution is to assimilate or get out. What if I don’t want to get out or assimilate? What if I hate my country’s flag or at the very least have mixed feelings about its past? The main way we view flags usually pertains to nation states but this article will also propose some alternative uses and reflections. The first thought though, the whole “fuck my flag and fuck my country” should probably be developed a little further with the help of good old fashioned anarchy.
Fuck My Country and Fuck My Flag
A N A R C H Y, outside of the mainstream Fight Club style, smash everything and ignore the casualties perspective, actually embodies a complex and many times contradicting multiplicity of personal interpretations. The article “In Defense of Anarchism” by fellow anarchist writer Eda Saridogan gives a great introduction to the main academic understanding of this chimeric political philosophy. The many forms of Anarchy may intimidate at first but could lead to a world with leftist unity and a feeling of belonging instead of rejection.
To compensate for the lack of individual’s participation within nation states around the world, banners supposedly embodying the common values and culture of these dejected people are erected as facsimiles of true representation. Not only have some of these flags served to unite the people within a nation but many have also been erected as a form of assimilation, to solidify the conquering of another’s land. Supposedly, my blood contains the roots of two countries, one side American (USA) and the other French (MDR) there is also some Korean in there (South) but I don’t know nearly enough about that country to talk about it in this article. The reason why I’m able to discuss French and American affairs is that I’ve spent eight years being born and raised in Marietta, Georgia and another ten living in Paris, France.
In my personal version of Anarchy (as is the case with other libertarian socialists under the same banner), nation states, patriotism and nationalism are all things that should be rejected. In doing so we would also have to rethink the way that we use flags, what they stand for and also understand their history in order to branch out into a brighter more inclusive future. In practice this article will be addressing the links between flags, identity, criticisms of nation states and the lens of criticism of a particularly privileged Anarchist (yours truly). In broad strokes though, this article’s all about flags. (vexillology, if you wanna sound pretentious)
Ideology, Representation and Nazis
Before anyone accuses me of saying that the French and American flags are the same as, say, a Nazi flag, I’m not. I’ll borrow the great argumentation of another anarchist who’s YouTube pen name is Thoughtslime in his video essay “Destiny and the Liberal Mind Prison”.
Whereas the Nazi flag is instantly recognizable by most as a statement of hatred and the pursuit of genocide, fascism and the need to look like absolute fucking morons, the flags of the countries I’m from have stood for a wide range of things and can’t be narrowly ascribed to something as repugnant as white nationalism or white/Aryan supremacy. I recognize that flags have become so common in soccer games, house lawns and any array of commodity paraphernalia that many don’t even bother thinking of their flags beyond the simplicity of a cool looking thing that they can attach themselves to. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a closer look at our culture. Especially when the very sight of a French flag can bring up such atrocities as the torture of the Algerians, Vietnamese and many many others. When our flags are being burnt by others in a faraway land why would we dig in our heels and say “screw them, they just don’t understand our freedom!”.
Even though the US and French flags haven’t been solely used to represent fascism like the Nazi flag, have they and are they not representing nations who in their past and present have been perpetrating such violence, aided foreign oppression and exported the very ideas of racial violence that the Nazis inspired themselves with in the first place?
When European settlers exported their racist ideologies during their whole “manifest destiny” phase (remember that Eddie Izzard skit?) making pseudo-scientific justifications for their colonization of others, the transatlantic slave trade and the human zoos parading “the missing link between human and animal”, the US ran with it and gave the world the wonderful continuation of European bullshit that ironically emboldened Europe’s most dickless leaders to commit The Genocide (you know the one).
These systems of oppression pervade in right-wing and nationalist discourse through a stunning condescension and feeling of superiority. Though a US Republican may not advocate for putting people in camps, their lust for strict border control usually stems from a misguided sense of preservation and a feeling that those escaping to America are either opportunistic and lazy, dangerous or anything that they would never call themselves. A republican may not associate with the Confederate flag (which, like the Nazi flag, stands solely for racism and slavery) but will brandish the US flag as a symbol of freedom and liberation. Which doesn’t mean that we are literally dropping drone strikes in Yemen with the star spangled banners adorning their metal casing. If we continue to commit such actions as a nation-state, united by our flag, then our flag has to also unite every element of America, from Imperialism to terrorism. When we become aware of what our flag represents and why it is seen negatively throughout the world, we should start to become critical of the patriotism that we’re supposed to lavish our colorful doodahs with. Simple example:
A Close Look at the Pledge of Allegiance
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Though the addition of “under God” and the capitalization of N to “Nation” came around the Second World War, the initial promise of “liberty and justice for all” can already be easily scrutinized. The constant systemic racism against black people as is currently being protested by BLM, the genocide of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears, putting Japanese and Mexican people in internment camps, etc… have constantly undermined what Martin Luther King Jr. deemed to be the “blank check” of America. The insistence of a Nation with a capital N as purported in the pledge of allegiance makes those reciting feel sanctified in the benevolent light of God and human rights of liberty and justice, day after day, in institutions who should be doing a much better job of teaching exactly why these words are as vapid and futile as posting a black square on Insta or saying “no child left behind” and simply increasing standardized testing. Even the liberal ideal of equality constantly gets touted by Democrats who, in their defense of C A P I T A L I S M, allow men like Harvey Weinstein to be the focal point of a movement like # MeToo where the insane concentration of capital and authority swept his sexual assaults under the rug for decades, and yet they want to talk about justice for all?
Why France is Actually Paris
As for France if we want to take a close look at ourselves we’d be hard pressed to find a representation that reaches the incredibly diverse landscapes and traditions outside of Paris. Indeed, two of the three stripes of the French flag stand for Paris (Blue and Red). The third (White) stands for the monarchy. The combination of the three symbolizes the encirclement of the King as we began a dark part of our past ominously referred to as “La Terreur”, something even the Marquis de Sade opposed (the Marquis de Sade is also the progenitor of the word Sadism, so, pretty low bar for ethics there, France). I’m not saying that we should reinstate the Monarchy, far from it, after getting rid of these crazy hat-wearing figure heads THREE TIMES, we should no longer have a flag that embodies this struggle exclusively by making France’s representation singularly synonymous with one city out of many.
The divide between the major cities of France and the rural regions has piqued the interest of Guilluy, a fervent critic of France’s misrepresentation and unending self-segregating social policy. Self segregation hiding within the Bobo (French term for the contradictory nature of the Bourgeois Bohemian) guise of diversity has allowed for sixty percent of immigrants to be pushed out into the banlieues (think suburbs, but somehow worse) of the fifteen major cities in France, and descendants of immigrants to be cut off from the privileged education, job opportunities and overall pay that the new French Bourgeois unsparingly spread around (only among themselves of course). In Cohabitation and the Birth of a New Bourgeois Spirit he notes that this exclusivity is strongest in Paris and when looking at the government nested safely within the city states:
“The hyperconcentration of the upper classes, in other words, has brought about a de facto cohabitation between the dominant elements of the right and left. If they differ with regard to social questions, they agree on the thing that really matters: a globalized economy. The major cities are the consequence of a single-minded policy and portend the emergence of a single-party state.”
The two main French political parties, in charge of legitimizing the French nation and people, making them living breathing flags with ideas, have become composed of a uniform class of Grandes Ecoles (French IV league) educated, gentrifying and globalizing Bourgeoisie that may seem as diverse as the three different colors of blue, white and red but just like the flag, actually just serve to represent one idea and one city—the Monarchy and Paris. They have reinforced an inequality that has left many disenfranchised and touted a new form of hierarchy. Though this smaller hat wearing form of government may not gain legitimacy from God given rights, at the very least highly favors those born in the right circumstances to sit on the capitalist and/or political throne.
In fact, this idea that Paris is the heart of France, its capital, its luminescent and eternal bastion, should be the very reason why the surrounding provinces should revolt and excommunicate this imbalanced unity. In doing so we would show the world that we do not stand in solidarity with the colonial and neo-colonial past and present of a country that after being accomplices of Hitler immediately opposed Algeria’s independence.
Independence and Liberation Aren’t the Same Thing
Now that we’ve looked at how flags made to represent a nation either fail to do so and/or are used to oppress and assimilate those on the outside we can start looking at flags that are not explicitly tied to nation states. In a North Korean propaganda poster the slightly altered communist flags melt into a sea of red as they elegantly wave in the air, clasped firmly in the hands of the working masses. The tagline of the poster says “Let us strive to create a Nation with the values of this flag!”. As opposed to French and US flags where the process of designing their cloth based identity followed their insurrection, the Communist flag stood on its own and inspired others to become independent, to adopt its values rather than the other way around. North Korea having been a colony of Japan during WW2 meant that the inherent struggle of the people was for the liberation of their country from repressive capitalist control. Several independence movements throughout Asia, Africa, South America and Russia have used the writings of Marx and Engels in order to understand the link between the loss of autonomy and the exploitation of their resources (both natural and physical). I’m not going to debate on whether or not these were Satellite States of the USSR or how they caused a bajillion deaths or any other US imperialist propaganda that refuses to acknowledge the benefit that adopting communist ideas had on colonized and enslaved peoples, go suck off Uncle Sam if you can’t handle nuance. I’m honestly surprised you even made it this far.
Continuing along the line of Anarchist analysis, the subverting of representation is not equivocal to liberation, at least in this case. Although the Communist flag isn’t in of itself the defining symbol of a nation, when applied as it was with the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam, China, DPRK, etc… there is a clear association made between the values of Communism and the hierarchies set in place. The hierarchies that were overthrown as well as the ones that eventually replaced them. Although having a leader and a nation of your own rather than one from a colonizing nation is a form of independence, absolutely better for the overall population. The most repressed, the working class and impoverished rarely become vindicated. Were the promises of proletariat unification not unfulfilled in DPRK as the promises of liberty and justice were for the US? Once the flag was created to represent a people’s nation it pushed along with it the values that any person born afterwards should hold within themselves and perpetrate outwards towards society. This ultimately leads those who are not actually accepted into the narrow framework of their country’s values to reject any direct association, becoming marginalized and hoping for something more. So when I push for the rejection of flags I don’t foolishly believe that their disappearance will solve all our problems. Just as a national anthem makes no sense without a nation, so too would the elimination of national flags make no sense without dissolving its nation.
Although when disassociated from the patriotic or nationalistic, such symbols as the hammer and sickle can fly freely as expressions of anti-capitalist unification, no matter who you are, you can fight against capitalism ("Workers of the world unite!”). In this manner, the power of flags, when designed and adopted by those least represented in society can be powerful and magnificent displays of identity and ideology.
Pan-Africanism and Asexuals
For our first case study of positive representation I’d like to introduce the Pan-African flag. Pan-Africans believe (in general) in the unity of all Africans not only within Africa but also African-Americans, diasporic Africans, etc… As I discuss these various groups, movements, ideas, etc… it is important to mention that I, as a cis-straight-white-male who’s able bodied and incredibly privileged wish to have us learn about them and learn from them but without co-opting their identity. It’s fundamentally their voice and not mine. Though I can ally myself by their side, it does not magically make it my struggle. So, back to Pan-Africanism, let’s start with their flag and what it so beautifully embodies:
Composed of three equally sized stripes, the first band is Red for the blood of those who have and who are forced into sacrificing themselves for Black Liberation, below is a black band for, well, you can probably guess why and the ultimate band is Green for the rich vegetation and land of Africa.
As Ahmed Souke Toure said: “To take part in the African Revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song, you must fashion a revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves.”
The Pan-African flag has therefore been waved as a rallying cry for all Black Liberation and serves as more than a simple token of inclusivity but as an intensely political and relevant fight against one of the oldest systems of oppression. When set in contrast to Colonial and Neo-Colonial flags one stands tall in the face of adversity and the other carries with it the “ white man’s burden” of exploitation and atrocity. As Chiweizu puts it in Decolonizing the African Mind:
“The Central objective in decolonizing the African mind is to overthrow the authority which alien traditions exercised over the African. This demands the dismantling of white supremacist beliefs and the structures which uphold them in every area of African life, it must be stressed however that decolonization does not mean ignorance of foreign tradition, it simply means denial of their authority and withdrawal of allegiance from them.”
A political philosophy that has branched out of Pan-Africanism is Anarkata or Black Anarchy. Combining the tri-colored flag with the anarchist symbol, the concern for decolonization is still at the forefront. What is represented by their emblem is, instead of a homogeneous group, the focus towards the small marginalized sections of society and centering the marginalized. The belief being that if one vindicates the rights of the most marginalized, the most disabled within society, then one also topples the hierarchies and systems of oppression present and acting against their intersectional identities.
As for representing spectrums of identity rather than intensely political or national ones, flags for sexual identity have done remarkable jobs at uniting, representing and pushing for the exploration of the personal and plural. We can examine the Asexual flag for example:
Composed of four horizontal stripes, each of the first three stripes representing the complex but all inclusive spectrum of Asexuality (Black, Grey, White) finishing with my favorite color (Purple) to stand for community. Actively embodying the chaos of human existence and allowing for someone to feel at home in this nebulous void, to feel accepted, heard and not alone. That is the beauty and power of flags of sexual identity.
Every flag is there to represent, but not all flags are created equal. History has given time to allow ideas, movements, identities and nations to design and hoist flags, some to symbolize the blood shed for liberation, others used whilst extracting blood diamonds in foreign lands. Each flag also has a rich history that even when at its infancy should be looked at, scrutinized and reflected upon. That’s why we shouldn’t shy away from telling their story, the whole messy truth and in some cases relegating that to museums when we understand that the whole truth is not ours so long as we have the will to denounce it. The flags for my nations should be abolished as should my nations and this allows me to ally myself with others who have had to face the backhand of what these nations have slapped onto the world. I’d love to live in a land where instead of promising its people the need to compete against others, we simply exist to maintain (instead of exploit) the land that has allowed us to be alive in the first place, going to museums where we can learn about the past of what used to be our country. I’d love to have flags being waved for the fight of marginalized people, for the expression of sexual identity, for a world aware of its diversity and fully embarrassing the wonderful chaos it creates. We are so much more than our passports, than artificial lines on a map, or communities that have through history erased and antagonized in the name of purity. Flags are not equal, neither are we, that is, until we unite and reject the systems of oppression that infect this planet. So look at your flag, criticize your nation, find your identity in more than the borders barricading others’ entry and in doing so unite with allies, they’re everywhere when you start searching, so might as well start now!
PS: One place to start is the IWW, a union I am happily a part of and has fought for the rights of many around the world!1