26 March 2016 13:34:31 IST

Feeling all funny about the flag

wong yu liang/shutterstock.com

A brief exploration of how and why we are ruled by cloths of many colours

If you’re celebrating your birthday in Sweden, it is customary — so I’ve been told — to hang out the blue and yellow Swedish flag from your home. No one visiting Turkey will fail to notice how ubiquitously the bright red flag flutters everywhere, in all sizes. And of course, the US is superhero of wearing the stars and stripes on the sleeve, not to speak of how proudly it sits on university campuses, public buildings and wherever else.

In India, when students thought they had the freedom to be young, carefree and care less, they found themselves being dragged to jail on charges of sedition. A direct consequence of this was that the government decided that Central university campuses would henceforth all sport the saffron, white and green, at great cost and causing greater consternation.

We thought we were relatively free of all that fetishism, flag-waving and chest-thumping. At least Big Brother Tiranga wasn’t bothered enough to watch and cheers to that. No longer, it seems.

Flying high

Not that I have anything against flags. I love them, and the anthems too. Even if I don’t watch the WorldT20 matches that follow, I am glued to the TV when the pre-match ceremony is on: the kids in white valiantly holding down the flags of the competing nations are a delight to behold, and the singing of the national anthems brings a lump to my throat. I’m trying to learn the anthems of all the participating nations — and some.

For instance, the Sri Lankan anthem tends to go on a bit, and the New Zealanders sing in Maori, followed by English. Also, the Indian and Bangladeshi anthems, both came from the genius of Rabindranath Tagore. Not that he wrote them as such: he died long before Bangladesh was born and before India became independent. They were chosen from his stupendously massive body of poetic work. Does singing along with the Sri Lankans, “ Namo namo namo, namo matha ” or the Pakistanis “ Pak sarzameen shad bad, kishwar-e-haseen shad bad… ” constitute anti-nationalism or unpatriotic behaviour? In fact, I recommend more of us sing along with the teams. We feel the love when we sing, and anyway everyone wants the same thing: prosperity and peace where they live.

The tingling sensation

Still, it’s curious the emotions a flag can arouse. I discovered on the Net an article by Lee Drutman entitled ‘Why the American flag inspires superiority not patriotism’. He cites experiments conducted by Markus Kemmelmeier and colleagues at the University of Nevada, Reno, that suggest that gazing upon the flag tended to “make people more individualistic, more materialistic and more nationalistic. Researchers tend to define patriotism as love of one’s country; nationalism, on the other hand, tends to measure feelings of superiority.”

Of course, what the flag means depends on context. Which would, to an extent, explain why we feel moved during the WorldT20 ritual, yet this emotion is different from what the flag would do in the context of war. But we’re not at war, are we? Nor do we, as responsible citizens of the world, wish to ever be in a state of war.

Ask the Germans. The blurb of a Der Spiegel article points out that “Over six decades after the end of World War II, Germans still have a pathological fear of patriotism. Flying the flag is still a faux pas.” The article goes on to say: “Berlin is an odd world capital: Whereas cities like Washington, London and Lisbon relish in a little flag-flying patriotism, Berlin shies away from the black, red and gold tricolor. Sure you’ll find it on the four corners of the parliament building. But elsewhere? Forget about it. Almost no German corporation flies a flag outside its headquarters, like British banks in The City do. And flags in front lawns Long Island style? No way.”

The reasons reach back into history, as well as, possibly, a healthy dose of decorum. When President Hollande appealed to Parisians to hang out the French flag after November 13 — an unusual request in itself — the spontaneous public display of red, white and blue on windows, walls and balconies was even more unusual for France. What was in character, though, was that it was not only flags that were hung out: there were also t-shirts and, in one instance, bras in appropriate colours. Would you call that anti-national or unpatriotic?

Recent flutters

The latest flag story was in the news not two days ago. Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand, it appears, is a disappointed man because 56.61 per cent of voters in his country chose to stay with the existing flag (blue, stars and the Union Jack), while 43.61 per cent went with the alternative ‘silver fern’ design (check out the cricket team’s gear). He had wanted to see the “colonial relic” replaced by something that would more clearly reflect New Zealand’s identity: “It’s just saying that when we ask people to say ‘What does it mean to be a New Zealander?’ I think the flag should be something that screams ‘New Zealand’ without a bar of the national anthem being played, without somebody saying where they’re from.”

Fair enough. But the people have spoken. That’s fair too. By the way, in the Cayman Islands, you have to get official permission to display the flag — and pay for it too. Yes, it takes all sorts.

According to Drutman, when Barack Obama first opened his presidential campaign for the 2008 bid, he was reluctant to wear the flagpin on his lapel. He had that same uncomfortable feeling that many have — and many others don’t. Either way, no sweat.

So what’s the point of flags? You tell me.