Putting a Face on Nations


The flag of the United States flies above the flag of the US State of Georgia on a flagpole. According to US law regarding the handling of flags, the US flag must fly above a sub-national flag on a flagpole. The US flag and the flag of any other sovereign country must be placed beside each other on flagpoles of equal size.

Jack Scott, Staff Writer

There is no modern country that does not have a national flag. Even the Vatican, home of the Pope, has a flag. These designs provoke a spectrum of emotions inside humans, like fear or anger or pride. Flags invoke a variety of feelings, yet they are just sheets of cloth with designs on them. Humans attach such complex meaning to them. They have been waved, saluted, and burned. They can be visually pleasing or awful, for a variety of reasons.

Among my most aesthetically favored national flags is that of Singapore. The flag is divided in two horizontally, red on top, white on bottom. The red stands for brotherhood and equality, while the white stands for virtue and purity. On the canton (the top left portion of a flag), a white crescent faces a pentagon of five-tipped stars. These five stars represent democracy, justice, peace, equality, and progress. The flag is visually arresting and pleasing to view, as its design is both simple and effective at representing the city-state of Singapore.

However, there are flags that look rather hideous and violate some or all of the five rules of good flag design as proposed by the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA). Many of the state flags of the US are glaringly subpar in this regard. Take Nebraska for example. The flag of Nebraska violates rules 1: keep it simple, 2: use meaningful symbolism, 4: no lettering or seals, and 5: be distinctive or be related. Nebraska’s seal is far too complex for placement on a flag, and it contains lettering all over. Adding words to a flag defeats the purpose of a flag: to provide a graphic design symbolizing a person, place, or idea. Why not just carry a large white banner with the word “Nebraska” written in big bold letters?

A flag, when done well, can be a unifying banner behind which people can rally. For centuries, India was a land of divided nationalities, cultures, languages, and religions. The Mughal Empire united much of the subcontinent, but was not ruled by Indians. Later, the British Empire conquered the subcontinent and controlled it until the 1940’s. The new nation of India had to come up with a flag to represent all peoples within its borders. The chosen flag was a horizontal tricolor of orange, white, and green, with the Ashoka Chakra in the center. The orange stands for courage, the white stands for peace, and the green represents chivalry. The Ashoka Chakra appears on many edicts issued by Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire.

Conversely, these simple designs can attract so much anger and disgust that they are outlawed or burned. They can be one of the most inspiring yet dangerous visual creations on the planet. The Chinese government knows this all too well. Far to the west of China’s vibrant urban centers sits a realm haunted by political and cultural suppression for most of the 1900’s. The Tibetan flag, introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama, is banned in China as one of the ways China is attempting to crack down on thoughts of independence in the mountainous plateau. The Tibetan flag is like all flags and is worthless without the work of humans attaching meanings to them, yet it carries such an intense meaning that it poses a threat to the Chinese government.

Flags can be a banner of ideology as well. In 1933, The Nazi Party came to power in Germany, launching a propaganda campaign of generating German patriotism that preceded the Second World War. To bolster this wave of nationalism, the red, black, and yellow flag of the Weimar Republic (now the modern flag of Germany) was scrapped and the famous Nazi Party flag was adopted. The idea was that the new flag would be an unforgettable and striking emblem that the German people could stand behind. To this day, the Nazi flag is one of the most recognizable national emblems in history. Hitler promptly ensured that nobody in Germany could be out of sight of the flag, and the symbol of the swastika became used by other fascist political parties, like Golden Dawn in Greece, and is banned in several European countries including Germany and Poland.

Another example of flag-design in support of an ideological movement originates with the red flag of socialism. Worldwide, socialist movements are characterized by a plain red flag, and the national flags of some socialist countries, most notably the Soviet Union, are variations of the red flag. It is no wonder that the red flag has become a symbol of the worldwide socialist movement; it is simple and does not look like it belongs to any one country or culture. While that flag is far too simple to be used as the flag of any one nation, it works well to represent the ideology of socialism and communism as a whole. It can be argued that its inability to be used as a national flag allows it to remain independent of any one nation and to remain a symbol of socialists and communists everywhere.

Flags provide a medium for invoking a national and cultural identity. They are used to represent nations, like Canada, and organizations, like the European Union. People fly them with pride and burn them with disgust. They inspire an intense passion that no other visual symbols do.