Monday, August 3, 2015

Fun With Flags

I was on the beach yesterday in where can only be called "not close to the Mason-Dixon Line" AT ALL.  What I saw would have made Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Mass. 54th Infantry- see Ferris Bueller's portrayal of him in the film, "Glory") turn over in his grave: the Confederate "Stars 'n Bars" in the form of a beach towel, being sat on by a nice little old lady from South Carolina.  I didn't ask her if her towel came from the flagpole at the statehouse in Colombia, but I did ask her how she liked Salisbury Beach: "Oh, such a lovely spot!  A bit more rocky than our beaches, but refreshingly cool."

Artist's conception of the sweet little old
Southern lady in her youth
What initially amazed me was that not one --not one of Massachusetts' nationally famous liberals, me included              --pointed out to the nice old Southern lady that her towel is the very image of slavery, racism and red-neck-ism, and she might want to exchange it for something a little less controversial, like, I don't know, Muhammad dancing the hokey-pokey.

That got me to thinking: why are people so apeshitedly invested in one flag or another?  And I'll give pride of place to the first crack at this question to that eminent historian, Dr. Eddie Izzard:  Eddie on Flags  We'll be coming back to Dr. Izzard and his sparkly dress later, but first, let's kick it back to what the first flags were, what their job was, and how that job changed over the years.

Yeah, like THIS bad-ass needed protecting!
Flags started out as identity markers for military units.  While there is no mention of Sparta's 300 or Thebes' Sacred Band or even the feared Bull Dykes of Lesbos using flags at or around Troy, Marathon or Thermopylae, we do see them being used by the Persian Sassanids' armies, and their implacable foes, the Roman Legions.  For a legionnaire, the legion's standard was kind of a cross between a battle banner and a religious idol. When a legion came to grief on the battlefield, its soldiers were expected to die defending their eagle to the last man; and indeed, battlefield anthropologists in places like Teutoburg Forest and Canea have found Roman corpses clumped together in such a way as to suggest that at the end, they all died fanatically defending something or someone. 

The "Something" was the golden eagle on top of that pole, carried by the huge guy wearing AN ENTIRE LION'S HEAD for a helmet, an officer called the Aquilifer.  As our modern re-enacter suggests, this job was given to the biggest, strongest soldier who was completely ok with marching into battle with a bird on a stick for a weapon.  So he might not have been the sharpest spear in the whole Legion, or maybe he was, because he knew an entire Roman Legion would be protecting him and his stupid bird.  And the officer who would wisely be standing next to him: a Consul in the days of the Republic. or a great general like Caesar Augustus.  

The Roman Eagle, or Aquilla, was a major deal to Roman Legionnaires.  The Aquilla was presented to the Legion during a huge religious ceremony, presided over by the Pontifax Maximus, or chief priest of Rome, who was usually the Emperor himself.  It was treated as a sacred idol, making it a powerful source of pride and identity to the Legion who possessed it.   But wait a minute: what's that red bit of fabric in the background, just to the right of our Roman Rob Gronkowski?
Modern recreations of actual Roman Legion battle standards.  Not shown are the Ducky, Moo-Cow
and Rainbow-Unicorn Legion standards.
These are among the first flags ever, and you can see they're not all that grand --merely a bit of red cloth stuck to a crossbar added to somebody's spear that told anyone who could read which Legion it was, its nickname and its mascot.  This was all very important to somebody the Legion had just run over; it was equally important to generals in the field, planning their battle strategy, as well as ordinary Roman citizens who loved to watch the Legions celebrate big victories with something called a Triumph --basically a huge parade. 

Meanwhile, over in China, the great armies of the Han Dynasty were using way more gaudy banners than our plain old Romans to identify their armies, and they were doing more: using them to communicate.  With the help of kites.  Really.  A Han General could get off a message to General Tso's army (of tasty chickens) by tying different colored banners to kites and then flying them high enough for said General Tso to see.  For example, green might mean, "Attack!" --red might mean "Retreat!" --yellow might mean "Gotta Take A Wizz- Be Right Back!" and so on.

And white with teal fringe might mean "Just ignore the guy with the boom mike"
The next time and place we see flags in is Medieval Europe.  By this time, the Roman Legions have had the stuffing knocked out of them by the Goths, Huns, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Teutons, Slavs and Vandals, just to name a few, and everybody who was left was too broke to field an army as big as a legion; but what they lacked in size, medieval armies made up for it in hardware.  By 1066, the average Anglo-Saxon knight, French-Norman chevalier or Spanish caballero andante was wearing so much steel that they needed these huge horses to carry them around the battlefield.  And, because they wore helmets that completely obscured their knightley faces, they needed some other way to identify themselves.  Seamstresses to the rescue!  They needed their own flag.

At first, knights would paint their shields with pictures and symbols that told a bit about their family history and their status, such as to whom they owed allegiance or held estates from.  Knights who fought from horseback sometimes put these designs on something called a pennon --basically a pennant-shaped bit of cloth tied around one's lance that made it easier to pull said lance out of the other knight one had just skewered.  In time, these bits of cloth got very fancy indeed and were carried about by a knight's Herald --basically a guy with a loud voice who would announce the knight's presence at the Lists, or Tournaments.
This one's a king's standard, because it hasn't
got shit all over it.

We're getting closer to Dr. Izzard's type of flag, but not quite yet.  For that kind of flag, humanity would have to suffer --and when I say suffer, I really, REALLY mean suffer.  Why?  Because it was after Europe's Medieval period that Europeans started to think of themselves as more than somebody's son or the resident of some village, the vassal of some lord or another.  They started to identify with other Europeans who spoke the same language, lived in the same general location, shared the same religion, history, dreams and aspirations.  They had begun to create something that the world had never seen before: the Nation State.
That's one old Danish
And this was its symbol.  At the top of Germany sits one completely bad-ass country: Denmark.  From the 780's onward, the Danes raided, plundered, killed, extorted and generally intimidated the hell out of the rest of Europe.  Ever hear of the Vikings?  Yeah, the ultra-violent ones came from Denmark.  Pretty soon, England, Ireland, France, even Sicily were terrorized by the mere sight of these Vikings swarming ashore from their longships.  Some local rulers went so far as to give in completely and pay them off with whatever the raiders wanted.  One even gave an entire province, complete with all the people and buildings in it, to this one especially nasty Viking named Rollo.  The land he was given is named Normandy, in honor of the Norse or Northmen who settled there.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark, the Vikings who stayed home began doing strange things.  They started brewing their own distinctive beer, making their own tasty cheese which they ate along with herring and rye bread, stewed berries, lots of different pork products, and speaking a language that wasn't quite Viking, German or Norse.  In short, they started behaving like Danes.  To celebrate this uniqueness breaking out all over the land, the Danes chose a king who would rule over them all, and adopted the white cross of Christ on the bloody red field of the Vikings as their symbol.

Hmm... coincidence?
Other peoples who fought for and established their very own nation states included the Swiss, whose flag looks remarkably like the Danish flag.  As a matter of fact, crosses were a kind of recurring motif in early European flags.  The best example of this is Great Britain's Union Jack, a flag that combines St. George's Cross (English) with St. Andrew's Cross (Scottish) and St. Patrick's Cross (Ireland) all into one flag.  By the way, missing from this flag is any direct reference to the kingdom of Wales.  This is because England had annexed Wales before the Union Jack was adopted.  That fact has made Welshmen cross for centuries (see what I just did there?  Cross? Welsh?  Hahahaha!)
Nope, no Wales here.  So just stop looking.

Which brings us to the late 18th, early 19th century.  Due to all of their keen inventions (steam engines, dynamite, cannons, muskets, railroads, kinky sex, canned food and --wait for it --textile sweatshops!), European countries set out with all the enthusiasm of a hipster-foodie turned loose in a Whole Foods market after-hours to explore, "discover," study and conquer the entire rest of the planet.  At gunpoint.  Why?  because: 1) they could; 2) the rest of the world was super-into European stuff like cotton underwear, woolen blankets and ironclad, steam-powered battleships; and 3) Europe's economic system of Capitalism demanded ever expanding overseas markets, ever increasing and infinitely inexpensive raw materials, tons of laborers smart enough to run the machines, yet stupid enough to work for shitty pay in dangerous conditions for 10-16 hours a day.  Or send their wives and children in to do the same thing.

The staff at Proletariat and Follicle's polishing their wieners after lunchtime floggings
Just a second Ex-Ppppprof, I hear you drunkenly stammer, Who'd be dumb enough to do that?  Well, given that the only other choice was to be stuck inside a workhouse, which was in turn stuck inside a Charles Dickens novel, which would later be stuffed inside an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical --a workhouse where you performed mind-numbingly boring work and got paid in floor space to sleep on and all the watery gruel you could shove  into your face at your 17-minute meal/pee-break/ flogging-free respite --even I would chose factory life.  That's not to say that everybody liked working in the factory: some didn't.

Help!  Save us from the evil factory --and that gigantic cop!
In fact, it was during this period that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels invented communism as a way for the workers (who totally outnumbered the capitalists at this point) to steal their own lives, souls and destinies back from someone Marx (Karl, not Groucho) called the Industrial Bourgeoisie.  Well, the I-B thought to themselves, these poor misguided poopy-heads need some sort of distraction, so because there isn't any television just yet, we're going to give them all little flags, have them wave, teach their children to hate everybody who waves a different flag than their own one, and stick their older kids into gigantic conscript armies in order to: take over trade routes with their valuable markets and resources, as well as slaughter the older children from different countries who are trying to do the same thing.  And you know what?  It worked.  A whole bunch of times.  Hooray!

We'll be changing the line-up slightly for WWI, part II...
In places like the Soviet Union, where they gave Marx's ideas (Karl again, not Harpo) at least a half-hearted try, the state declared war on religion itself, substituting Russia's flag and portraits of her leaders Lenin (Vladimir Ilych, not John) and Stalin, for Russian saints and religious icons.  On the other side of the world, the United States, a country that has the separation of the state from religion in its founding documents, added the clause, "under God" to a little ditty it forced schoolchildren to recite every morning, something called The Pledge of Allegiance.  And what were these little darlings pledging their loyalty to?  Why, the United States of America.  And what was its symbol?  

Does nobody besides me find it ironic that a flag this BIG is on the field at RFK Stadium, where the Redskins play?
Bingo.  There you have it.  The reason people are so attached to their flags is because of all the historical, moral and racial baggage that those flags represent.  That's not to say the world would be a better place without them,  I think a flag flying around a flagpole can be a beautiful sight, no matter which country it represents.  For this reason, I kind of like the emerging tradition among American home owners where they fly a holiday or seasonally appropriate flag from their front porch (my favorite?  Halloween Black Cats!)  And maybe, just maybe, we would all benefit from going a little less apeshit whenever somebody flies a flag we don't like.

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