Someone who studies flags is a “vexillologist.” There’s a North American Vexillological Association for persons devoted to this study. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a flag was not so much a symbol as a practical way to tell from a distance whether a ship or an army was friend or foe, according to a past president of the association.
What I take away from Jennifer Finney Boylan’s piece about Maine’s flag, besides a happy meeting with “vexillology,” is how flags can become bully props pressed into the service of hem-kissing and disuniting narratives.
Words can evolve similarly, especially under the stress of feral politics. The advent of “homeland” rather than “national” security took our civic discourse in the direction of Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or the “USA PATRIOT Act.” The labels have a discomfiting whiff to the “fatherland” to them.
Boylan’s parting comment is food for thought: “When you wave the flag, the flag is also waving you.”
(Jennifer Finney Boylan, “Two Flags Over Maine (and America),” NYTimes, 6-10-20)
(c) 2020 JMN)