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Like a Red Flag to a Bull: On the Tyranny of Flags

24/05/2013 17:10 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 10:12 BST
Alamy

I don't like flags.

It's not because of any childhood trauma (although Geri Halliwell spilling out of her Union Jack dress at the Brit Awards came pretty damn close).

It's not a weird phobia, like some people are scared of fruit.

It's not because I have a deep-seated aesthetic rage against flags (although some of them look as if they were designed by a near-sighted, colour-blind sheep).

I know winning athletes love to wrap themselves in their national flag and I'm prepared to give them a bit of breathing space. Anyone who's just run 100 metres in under 10 seconds can wrap themselves in mongoose hide as far as I'm concerned (with the mongooses permission).

I don't like what most flags represent.

Now, I know what you're thinking.

There are so many flags, with so many different meanings. There's the red flag of socialism, the black flag of anarchism, the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement.

There are those flags by the sea that tell you "Don't swim, sharks in the water" or those at a railway station which warn, "Impending doom, train approaching".

I'm not going to pretend these flags don't have their uses (I generally prefer to stay on the right side of the tracks).

I'm talking national flags. Who can forget the look of atavistic hatred on an England supporter's red and white face (and not just because he's sunburnt) when he's lost a game to Germany?

Who can forget the flag of Nazism? (Those English football supporters certainly can't). The flag of Soviet Russia? Of Communist China?

The American flag that was triumphantly placed over the face of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad during the 2003 Iraq War?

Now I'm living in Israel.

Flags are everywhere. Not just on Independence Day but every day.

Most Israelis seem to have a fetish for them: little flags, big flags, flags the size of cars hanging from their balconies; by a falafel stand, outside a dive bar and, in the Ministry of Interior, rows and rows of them-hanging from the ceiling, blowing in the breeze, in some crazy, moving mosaic.

It's not politics, it's nationalism. As social scientist Michael Billig puts it, "The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building".

That speaks for British, French or American nationalism as much as Israeli nationalism.

For me such flags are symbols of empire, occupation and oppression.

That's a jump in logic you might not be willing to make but I cannot look at the red and white of St George's Cross without conjuring up Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech and the BNP.

The Israeli flag, to me, is the flag of an occupier.

For flag-waving nationalists on Jerusalem Day (commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control after the Six-Day War in 1967) the flag is a tool of elevation as much as celebration.

The same may be said of die-hard American patriots waving their stars and stripes in honour of killing terrorists.

This is elevation above 'the Other', an Other that is often poor and brown and disenfranchised.

Flags are a symbol of power, of victory. What better way of showing someone you've won than a public display of where they're not welcome?

The Jewish settlers who wave Israeli flags in Palestinian neighbourhoods are giving a clear sign, "This is mine".

A flag is the mark of the conqueror: Columbus in America, man on the moon, an Israeli in Palestine.

I cannot admire something that, all too often, precedes stamping on others: the glory of a nation reflected in the abjection of others.

You can keep your flags.

I won't be burning them.

But don't wave them at me.