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If the Union Jack wasn’t racist before, it is now

June 29, 2016

I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about flags. I groan whenever the football world cup comes around, because I know that several of the houses near me will whip out the England flag like I should start thumping my chest at the sight of red on white.

Whenever the queen celebrates a birthday or jubilee, it’s Union Jack bunting all across the alleyways, emblazoned on chests and painted on faces, sometimes shot from the pipes of flyover jets.

The major irritation is that people obviously don’t think about what it means; the Union Jack just represents the unity of all the different countries of the UK. What does it have to do with the queen? There’s nothing royalist about the flag. If you want to celebrate the queen, wear masks of her face and little tiaras.

This loose notion of being A Country and therefore, a culture, pervades everywhere and makes the flag a form of idolatry. In ‘murica, too many people worry about what it means when someone burns a flag, as if flag-burners are burning America itself and all its people.

The irony of this is obviously lost on them; their objection proves the comment being made by the act – that America’s is overly patriotic and over-defensive of patriotism, a pattern of thought which does not lead people to make rational judgements.

The flag-burners understand that idolatry patriotism is forged in large part out of paranoia about corrupting influences on the American way of life. They may also see that massive idolatry in a self-proclaimed “Christian nation” is decidedly strange, since #2 of the Ten expressly forbids that.

Patriotism – which is distinct from nationalism only in connotation, not in definition – is its own religion. It is a strong, collective faith in the inherent sanctity of a set of ideals by which one lives one’s life. That set of ideals, in the case of nationalism, is the nation’s culture.

Flag idolatry and nationalism are too obviously connected, and thus flag-waving has always struck me as insidious. The Union Jack, despite in theory standing for unity, has become unabashedly symbolic of parochialism – a particularly British ideal upheld in popular national press like the Daily Mail. The idea behind a nation’s flag has always been: “Look at us, aren’t we great? We don’t need anyone else!”

It was nationalist stupidity that drove some Scots to attempt to leave the UK in the Scottish referendum, and Britain at large to choose to leave the EU. That people do not see the connection between patriotism and xenophobia is their mistake. They have always been two sides of the same coin.

I’m talking about equal, free societies where the majority of people have enshrined rights and many liberties. In the case of oppressive regimes, I can see the innocence of waving the national flag in protest during political rallies. Their message is: This protest is about what we think it means to be a member of this country – we as citizens don’t agree with your interpretation, and the changes you’re making off the back of that.

Gay pride parades have flags for the same reason, including special versions of national flags, like the pink Union Jack I’ve got hanging on my wall. That flag doesn’t mean: “Look how great Britain is!” it means: “Look how inclusive and tolerant Britain can be!” A statement I often question, but we can fantasise.

It is a complete inversion of what the standard Jack means. Its potency is in this subversion; challenging conservatism by corrupting its symbols is empowering for anyone who doesn’t fit the conservative ideal. It is a peaceful statement of non-conformance due to natural difference as opposed to political dissonance.

I believe putting an EU or Union flag up during the referendum was a strong political statement of a very different kind – an aggressive, rather than pacifist, message. Hanging the flag gives people your bald opinion while removing the necessity of justification. It’s the (sometimes negative) power of proving quantity; anyone can put up a flag, or a sticker saying “I’m voting OUT”. Therefore, lots of people who have strong but not necessarily particularly well-informed opinions can do it.

This creates an oppressive atmosphere and is antisocial. It forces people who are minding their own business to engage with your opinion, whether they want to or not, but takes from them the right to reply. After all, politeness forbids knocking on the door and saying: “Excuse me, would you mind explaining why you want to leave a functioning legislative, political and economic union?”

Canvassers might be brave enough to face the array of nonsense that is likely to come out of asking people to justify their opinions; regular people have no time, energy, strength or motivation. But they still have to carry the annoyance of knowing someone else’s feelings, without knowing exactly who or fully understanding why. Putting up a flag has always been an act of territorial war, the marking of one’s camp as distinct from another’s.

For this reason, standard flag-waving in times of calm are inherently antagonistic in the same way that flags in times of trouble can be a call to peace. They assert a historically domineering attitude: tradition over change, no matter what the change may be. They are all about resistance, backlash, and ultimately intolerance.

There’s no neutrality to hanging the standard Union Jack out a window for the world to see. After all, what possible neutral meaning could it have – this is Britain? Perhaps I should believe that it’s an innocent reminder to any lost Eastern Europeans who forgot what country they were in. Perhaps the Jacks all point towards the nearest airport.

Obviously, people who hang flags have something to say about their allegiance. I know the English flag generally means an allegiance to the English football team, and apart from thinking it daft (and observing that the World Cup brings out the worst in some people), I suppose in the grand scheme of things it’s harmless, compared to what the Union Jack means in the context of Britain having left the EU.

It means: “We have our own ideas about what it means to be British which will not be corrupted by foreign influences.” These foreign influences are for your interpretation, and change depending on the decade; Pakistanis one year, Romanians another. Yet throughout its life, the meaning of the Union Jack has change little since the days of imperialism, when we had the cheek to assert our right not to be corrupted by foreign influences when we were on other peoples’ soil.

Some people assert that it just means you’re “proud to be British”. But that does not mean anything at all, in and of itself. Why are you proud to be British – what specifically makes you proud, and how do you support these specific positive elements?

What does it mean, in practical terms – you’re proud to have a fish ‘n’ chip shop at the top of the road? You’re proud your parents met and mated in Britain – what of it? When people reduce “pride” of their country (I call it “gratitude” to be born here, and not Syria or North Korea) down to a generalised concept, they group unconnected elements from different sources together.

For example, some of the things that make me happy to be in the UK come from the EU. We may have broken from it, but we can’t its effect. Our growth in tandem with the rest of Western Europe has made Britain what it is to day, at its best: tolerant, cosmopolitan, defenders of individual rights, and globally connected. Red and white on blue do not, these days, accurately reflect what Britain has (hopefully permanently) become. A ring of yellow stars is also required.

Yet, people with “pride” in their country aren’t particularly concerned with these details. This generalised pride always has the flip side of national narcissism and arrogance; the idea that, whatever the issue, your way is better than other ways, and when the Other Ways break through, it is always a Bad Thing.

Even people who declare they believe no such thing often hang oddly to the concept of patriotism. It’s so intangible yet set in stone, people can’t separate appreciation of a particular attribute of a state from dulce domum. That you are from your country and therefore attached to it is separate from how good it is. People from troubled countries understand that better, and talk about the country like it is a sociopathic mother whom you are bound to love, but cannot like.

That anthropomorphism doesn’t do much to help informed decision-making; when you fuse what you “love” with what you like, or appreciate, you’ve fallen into the patriotism trap. The flag is the symbol of love, and this form of love is one we can’t sing the virtues of in popular song, because it so often informs racism and xenophobia. A cease in flag-waving is a dedication to understanding that nation flags, in most cases, are for racists.


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