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Tim Marshall on flags, maps, and border walls

Octavian Report: Where do flags come from? Why do humans need them?

Tim Marshall: Because we remain tribalistic. Even if you work for the Ford Motor Company, you will see outside the showroom the Ford flag.

I’m not a professional vexillologist. I’m more of a journalist who’s interested in identity and history and politics and the nexus between them. And my book, essentially, was not really about flags: it was about why they mean what they mean.

I think that you could even call a skull stuck on top of a stick and carried into battle, going back to prehistoric times, a proto-flag. The flag is a totem, after all. It embodies the character and spirit and power of what you see yourself to be.

The Chinese invented silk — before silk, you can’t really paint cloth. It won’t blow in the wind, it gets wet in the rain and extraordinarily heavy. Once the Chinese invented silk, these symbols that you might have hung on your wall or carried briefly on a stick you now have the ability to fly. You can take them long distances.

So it is thought the Chinese were the first ones to have flag. They are taken along the Silk Road. The Arabs traded with them and are thought to be the second peoples to pick them up. Europe then meets the Arab world during the Crusades where the Arabs were flying these flags in battle. And the Europeans — essentially tribes or proto-nations; the Germanic peoples, the Italian peoples, the British peoples — thought, “Well, this is a good idea because if the Franks on my left are flying X flag and the Germanic tribes on my right are flying Y flag, I will know who is who and where they are.” And then from that grew the European tradition of heraldry. Eventually that, down the line, turns into nationhood and the flags of nations, which then turned into the flags of nation-states.

We asked Marshall which world flag he thought was the best. His answer might surprise you.  [1]

OR: What makes flags great? And what is the tension between the flag that’s aesthetically powerful versus the flag that’s politically powerful (if it is possible to separate the two)?

Marshall: They’re not separable, nor can you separate what you bring to it. This is a really crucial point. In art, most people will accept that when you’re looking at a painting, you bring to it your own interpretation. It’s a two-way process. And that is the same with the flag.

The British flag to most outsiders is just the British flag. If you understood the history of the nations in the U.K. and how they are now woven together, they are also woven together in that flag so that it’s more powerful. You actually are looking at the unity of the Scottish flag, the English flag, and to a lesser extent Northern Ireland (not to complicate the story). So it’s what you bring to it. And you cannot divorce that from how you feel about it.

The power of the flag lies partly within you and partly within it. Another great example is the ISIS flag. Black, which is thought to have been the color of Mohammed’s flag.  Square, as Mohammed’s flag is thought to have been square. They then write on it the shehada, the profession of faith. And then they bring more to it. They bring utter brutality. When they carry out their atrocities, which they video, they make sure the flag is visible.

When you see this advancing towards you and you know the power of it because you’ve seen the videos, you bring your fear with you.

I personally like the Macedonian flag and its sunburst. I like it, I’m interested in its story. But it doesn’t have much power over me. The ISIS flag would have some power over me if I saw it coming towards me.

OR: What makes for bad flags?

Marshall: Not being instantly recognizable. Think about Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the world’s most populous countries. It’s a huge country. It’s an important country with oil. Yet I don’t think very many people would know its flag. And that’s partly because its flag is instantly forgettable. It’s a green stripe, a white stripe, and a green stripe. I’ve got nothing against Nigeria or Nigerians, but that is not a flag which I think is destined to occupy many people’s attention.

OR: How do you assess the Stars and Stripes?

Marshall: As an aesthetic, I like it. It’s bold, it’s colorful, you can see it at a distance. And it’s also interesting. Having the 13 stripes representing the 13 colonies immediately tells you about flag’s history. And having a star for each state also tells you that it’s a federation. I think it’s a brilliant flag.

When you see that flag planted at Iwo Jima, for example, it’s very easy to get hold of the idea that this flag stands for freedom. The 13 colonies were fighting for freedom; the concept of freedom is woven into the flag. At Iwo Jima, you could make that case.

It becomes more troublesome and problematic when America might be deemed to be behaving in a manner which a lot more people would disagree with. Iraq, for example. At that point, the flag is not seen by everybody as standing for freedom. Or Mr. Trump’s inauguration. I’m not making a case for or against him. But the flags blowing to either side of him as he gave his “America First” speech in a cold January wind might be seen as heralding a colder and more isolationist America.

OR: In addition to writing about flags, you’ve written — in the second book in your trilogy — about maps. Why are they so important?

Marshall: Consider the Sea of Azov, just above the Black Sea separating Ukraine and Russia. Russia is now re-interpreting the boundaries of that sea. Their maps now will shade Crimea, which legally remains Ukraine, as Russian. And so they are seeking to put onto the maps what they regard as their legal right.

Another example: Macedonia and Greece. Macedonia has had a referendum, its parliament has agreed to change their name to the Northern Republic of Macedonia because the northern part of Greece is called Macedonia and there’s been a row over it. And again, on their maps, it’s very important what they’re called.

This has always been the case. And the basis of it is geography, obviously: here’s this river, here’s this sea, here’s this desert. These themselves forged the cultures of peoples living within them. The British are framed by the sea. And so what we call things and what we say are things on maps are part and parcel of that physical process.

Another example, which has cooled down a lot: the Falklands. The Argentines call them something else: Las Malvinas. And on their maps, it’s shown as that. If you produce a map in Argentina in which you call Las Malvinas the Falkland Islands, it’s a criminal offense.

OR: Your third book deals with another facet of national life: walls. How has the idea of the walled border come to influence our thinking both about culture and about politics?

Marshall: Flags are about identity; identity flows from geography. Walls, again, are absolutely tied up with all this.

We’ve built walls ever since we stopped being hunter/gatherers. Because the moment you stop being a hunter/gatherer — and we began to stop about 12,000 years ago — you have a fixed spot, something that you hold precious. Whether it’s other people around you or all your livestock or your crop that year. Life being what it is, you’re not sure that somebody else from the next valley might not covet those goods. On that thought we started building walls. And we’ve never stopped.

The walls of Constantinople stood for 1,000 years before they were breached; others were less successful. They signify “us and them.” I’m not a big fan of them, but I don’t expect them to go away any time soon. 65 countries now fence or wall themselves off — a third of all the nation-states in the world. Of all the walls and border fences built since the Second World War, more than half of them have been built this century. We remain divided.

Technology and the internet have allowed us to communicate; trade routes are better than they’ve ever been. Yet the nation-state and people’s sense of identity appear as strong as ever. And up come the walls. The most famous in the world is the Israeli/Palestine one. But the Indians have fenced off the entirety of Bangladesh, all two-and-a-half-thousand miles of it, because of the movement of peoples. Turkey has just finished a 700-mile concrete wall with Syria. Kenya has just fenced off Somalia this year.

Europe, this great continent where we are all so open, has got fence after fence after fence. Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia, Serbia and Hungary, Austria and Slovenia.

OR: Do you see the politics around walls changing?

Marshall:  I don’t think this is going to change because I don’t think mass movement of peoples has peaked yet. Why would it? If you accept current models of climate change, then a third of Bangladesh will be underwater within 20 years. That affects tens of millions of people. Where are they going to move? If you accept the projections about Africa — there are currently 1.2 billion Africans; by 2060, there will be 2.2 billion — I’m not sure that Africa has the capacity to employ all those people. I suspect many of them will move north.

At the very time when this mass movement of peoples seems set to continue and climate change appears to be advancing, so does automation. Again, I’m only going by what the experts say. But the experts tell me that about 50 percent of jobs will fall to automation within two or three decades. So if that’s the case and we have tens of millions of people on the move seeking work and yet the jobs are drying up, I don’t see why you would project stability. I don’t see why you would project total confidence in liberal democracy.

I think it’s going to be extraordinarily bumpy in five to 10 years. I think if we can get the politics right and if we can have the proper political conversations that are required and if we can somehow slow down climate change and invest in places where people think they need to move from, then we can come out of the other end of this bumpy period and continue what has been a 200-year journey towards where we are now. I’m a big fan of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. I do think that our systems have brought people out of poverty and educated them all over the world and I think we can continue on that trajectory. But it’s going to be very rocky for a few years.