Hitting US booksellers this Independence Day, a new flag book is attracting some media attention: British journalist and BBC commentator Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics Behind National Symbols. (The UK version was published last year under the title Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags.)
Marshall tackles fundamental and challenging questions about the meanings and effects of flags:
What does it mean to try to encapsulate a nation in a flag? It means trying to unite a population behind a homogeneous set of ideals, aims, history, and beliefs—an almost impossible task. But when passions are aroused, when the banner of an enemy is flying high, people flock to their own symbol. Flags have much to do with our traditional tribal tendencies and notions of identity—the idea of us versus them. Much of the symbolism in flag design is based on that concept of conflict and opposition—as seen in the common theme of red for the blood of the people, for example. But in a modern world, striving to reduce conflict and promote a greater sense of unity, peace, and equality, where population movements have blurred those lines between “us and them,” what role do flags now play?
Though much of the content will be familiar to vexillologists, Marshall’s point of view is quite interesting grounded in years of international reporting, often from war zones and other sites of conflict. And there are some real gems, such as an anecdote about the last-minute creation of South Africa’s flag.
In 1994, when South Africa jettisoned apartheid emblems, Fred Brownell was asked to devise a new flag after 7,000 alternative designs had been rejected. However, Nelson Mandela received a black-and-white fax of Brownell’s design for final approval, so aides had to buy crayons at a local store and fill in the all-important colours. Happily, Fred’s Rainbow Nation ensign passed muster! (From Lawrence Joffe’s review in the Jewish Chronicle)
It is always nice to hear vexillology on the radio:
- The Stories and Symbols Behind the Flags of the World (10:58). Interview with Marshall on Here & Now, WBUR, 3 Jul 2017.
Those preferring video should check out Marshall’s November 2016 talk at the London School of Economics and Political Science:
- A World’s Worth of Flags and What They Mean. Aaron Retica, NY Times Book Review, 30 Jun 2017. (Also covered in the NY Times Book Review Podcast episode, Silk on a Stick.)
- In time for July 4, ‘A Flag Worth Dying For’ deserves a salute. Ray Locker, USA Today, 1 Jul 2017.
- Here’s why the American flag is reversed on military uniforms. Business Insider on YouTube, 24 Jun 2017. (1.4 million views of this interview excerpt!)
- This is why the EU flag is failing at bringing people together. Claudia Romero, Business Insider, 14 May 2017. Interview excerpt.
- Why the black flag of ISIS is a ‘clever piece of marketing’. Claudia Romero, Business Insider, 12 May 2017. Interview excerpt.
- Falling standards and flagging spirits: Worth Dying For, Tim Marshall’s disappointing vexillological miscellany, fails to pass with flying colours. Daniel Hannan, The Spectator, 31 Dec 2016.
- Book Review – Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags by Tim Marshall. Lawrence Joffe, Jewish Chronicle, 14 Oct 2016.
- The What and the Why (thewhatandthewhy.com). Marshall’s news and commentary site.