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Why I hate flags

A hand waving a dinky little American flag

In her latest (excellent) book Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, the author Naomi Klein makes an offhand comment that, as a leftist, flags make her itchy. I feel the same way, in a way that goes beyond the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack.

At its worst, a national flag becomes a kind of uniform that you wield to declare loyalty above all else to your nation of origin. For me, it’s a statement of nationalism: of belonging not to the human race but to a particular subset that you hold to be greater than the rest. Rather than a diverse plurality, it’s a uniform that stands for homogeneity; it’s a way of saying, we are all this one thing. The flag, and the anthem alongside it, is about national pride rather than human pride; pride in a set of administrative borders and legislative rules rather than ideals. It’s idolatry.

Back in 2012, the athlete Leo Manzano was roundly criticized for carrying the Mexican flag alongside the American one after winning an Olympic silver medal. People were outraged: how dare you align yourself with two nations? Manzano was honoring his heritage, but the idea that people can be more than one thing and be a part of more than one context and community didn’t sit well with flag worshipers. In 2016, American footballers started to kneel for the national anthem to make the point that America didn’t care for its people equally; for many, this was, again, a violation. Respect the anthem! Respect the flag! Stand to attention! Conform!

Once this set of patriotic norms has been established — as it has since the dark days of McCarthyism in the 1950s — it’s easy to cast doubt on people who call a country’s acts into question. “He hates America,” someone might say about someone who questions America’s foreign policy, casting real questions or criticisms into a projection of irrational blind hatred. This is the genuine definition of fascism: the creation of in-groups and out-groups and a demand for complete devotion to the nation from the populace. Not only is it fiercely repressive, but it’s inherently counter-productive. How can you strive to improve a place if questioning it is frowned upon?

Companies use similar tricks. A company’s brand is very much like its flag, and employees are encouraged to display blind devotion to its mission, vision, and strategy. By encouraging blind faith rather than independent, individual questioning, company bosses hope to maintain an obedient workforce. Loyal, valued employees aren’t the ones who start unions or share around salary spreadsheets to document wage inequality. They’re the ones who proudly wear the company gear, decked out in their logos, and are excited to follow the strategy du jour. These companies don’t want employees to question their executives’ ideas; to highlight ethical lapses; to point out harms enacted in the name of profit or a higher share price.

To the extent that companies are able to achieve this, it’s in part because this sort of blind fascism is already a core part of American culture. It’s an extension of what’s already in the water.

Americans are encouraged not to think too hard about what’s happening outside their borders. For some, particularly rural Republicans, that might be the borders of their town, or their state; for others, it might be the nation as a whole. Regardless, a holistic view of the world — we are all connected, we are all human, one nation’s actions affect the peoples of another — is not commonly held. The flag is a tool to that end: it demands that we should be loyal to America (or our state, or our town). Those other people are less important. “What happens in other places doesn’t really affect me, so I don’t pay attention,” I’ve been told, again and again. Yet ask the people in other countries what they think about their waters rising, their air getting dirtier, their democratically-elected governments being removed through coups in order to secure resource rights. We are all connected.

Consider the Meta workers who blindly allied themselves with their employer when it emerged that it had been actively complicit in a genocide in Myanmar. While some employees certainly did call out Mark Zuckerberg and other executives, many more sided with the company. They were loyal to their community no matter what, even in the face of evidence it had allowed atrocities to be committed using the platform they all built together. While Rohingya were dying, people enabling it proudly wore their Facebook T-shirts and worried about proving themselves at their performance reviews.

It would be much harder to dismiss the plight of an entire people if they were considered to be people in the first place. They’re out there over some border that most people have never seen, living in some other place, and are therefore lesser. We don’t see them as being us, in part because of our worship of nationhood, of flags, of anthems. There’s a reason why all of the worst movements in history centered a reverence for those elements.

I remember, as a child growing up in England, hearing the patriotic song Rule Britannia sung over and over again. It goes like this:

Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.

That second line is a little rich if you know what, exactly, Britain was doing out on those waves in the 1700s, when the lyrics were written. If we cared about the legacy of our actions, and in this case the impacts that slavery had over generations, we might not continue to sing it. But the desire for blind loyalty through patriotism continues to overwhelm the need to actually confront and question that history and inhibits the discussion of those actions. I only learned in the last year that Lloyds of London, the oft-cited, very famous insurance broker, made its money by being the insurance center for the global slave trade. There is a need for a much greater reckoning, which blind loyalty impedes.

The third verse of the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, goes as follows:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This is a derogatory reference to Black people in the Revolutionary War who fought with the British because American rule meant living in slavery. Its author described Black people as “a distinct and inferior race, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that affects a community”.

There is no need in the world to revere this old world fascism. There is no need in the world to perpetuate the myth of national superiority; of the goodness of military might; of pride in homogeneity. We are all one people, and our strength is in our diversity.

One of the greatest things the internet has given us is a post-national connectivity. We can speak with people in other nations as easily as we can with our neighbors down the street. The only real impedances are timezones and language barriers; the latter is being broken by AI, and the former is greatly aided by asynchronous communication. No visas are required to discuss, collaborate, and share ideas. In a world where most people have cameras and connections, nobody needs to be seen as inhuman. We can see each other; we can converse; we can know each other despite geographic separations in a way that we could never have before. I still believe that the internet can be a great force for peace: as we learn more about each other as humans, the less we can dismiss the lived experiences as others. They become real.

The thing is, we have to do it. We have to overcome the forces that tell us we should only care about the people in our local communities; the ones that say that you should be loyal to a single nation no matter how it conducts itself. We actually have to stand and say that we are welcoming and inclusive, which also means actively reckoning with the past.

And the same goes for people who are allied with their employer. There is no need to work on adverse policies unquestioningly. Organizing, advocating, thinking for yourself and bringing your whole, individual identity to your work community should be encouraged. Plurality, rather than a singular way of being, should be the expected norm.

Flags, patriotism, nationalism, anthems? I see those as anti-human ideas. As Naomi Klein says, they make me itchy. I’d rather we consider our humanity and our connectedness, and ditch the parochial horizons once and for all.

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