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Fabric of a nation: How flags can be used and co-opted

  • Written by  Matthew Benwell
  • Published in Geopolitics
During the protests that rocked Chile at the end of 2019, a protester waves the Chilean flag while sitting atop the statue of General Manuel Baquedano Gonzalez, a hero of Chile’s 19th-century War of the Pacific, situated in the capital, Santiago During the protests that rocked Chile at the end of 2019, a protester waves the Chilean flag while sitting atop the statue of General Manuel Baquedano Gonzalez, a hero of Chile’s 19th-century War of the Pacific, situated in the capital, Santiago Nick Otero DRCL/Shutterstock
30 Sep
2021
Matthew Benwell, senior lecturer in human geography at Newcastle University, considers the ways in which flags can be used and co-opted 

Recent controversies in British politics and public life about the presence or absence of national flags on government buildings, as well as the size or number of flags on display during television broadcasts, has shed light once again on the emotions with which the nation’s fabric is imbued.

Along with maps, flags are the objects most commonly associated with political geography, attracting interest and intrigue as symbols and colours that represent nations and national communities. In similar ways to cartographic representations of the world, however, national flags have the capacity to include and exclude people who might struggle to have their national sovereignty and symbols recognised, including countless indigenous communities and regions seeking greater political autonomy. National flags aren’t always passively accepted and can be overlooked, altered, subverted and re-appropriated by communities in order to make powerful political and geopolitical points as part of protests and uprisings.

While the symbolic qualities of flags have long been acknowledged, rather less attention has been given to the ‘work’ that these national material objects can do. This can occur at the level of the state, as politicians and diplomats deploy flags to generate ‘national pride and unity’ or forms of territorial nationalism. As Klaus Dodds, author of Border Wars and former geopolitics columnist for Geographical asserts, the material qualities of flags matter and have been planted in a plethora of environments, from the Arctic seabed to the Moon, in order to make potent geopolitical claims.

Flags also feature in everyday lives and landscapes, where people engage with them in different ways. Sometimes national unity is enhanced, but it can also be disrupted. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the region of the world where most of my recent research has been undertaken: the Southern Cone, encompassing Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands. Here, flags have been put to work by states, people and citizens in the name of territorial sovereignty claims, as well as to fabricate alternative forms of citizenship.

FLAGGING GEOPOLITICS

For a long time, national flags have featured prominently in the sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland Islands, where they’ve been planted in the ground to make territorial claims and raised on masts to signify military occupations and conquests. The Falklands are a designated British Overseas Territory, although their status is fervently disputed by Argentina, which claims sovereignty over what it calls the Islas Malvinas. The dispute led to war in 1982, when the increasingly unpopular dictatorship ruling Argentina decided to invade the islands.

The ensuing military confrontation between Argentine and British armed forces (assisted by citizens of the islands) resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 men from both sides and three local civilian women. Significant events, encompassing diverse interpretations of this history, regularly feature in the national calendars of Argentina, the Falklands and the UK, and are frequently marked with government-initiated commemorative ceremonies during which the national standard is poignantly and proudly raised.

For example, in 2020, Argentina celebrated what it proclaimed was the 200th anniversary of the first flying of its flag in the Islas Malvinas, a fact that is passionately disputed by some British and Falklands’ historians. This saw simultaneous flag-raising ceremonies conducted in cities throughout Argentina, from La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia to Ushuaia in Patagonia. A flag was even raised over an Argentine scientific base in Antarctica at the same time as the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, witnessed the raising of a large national flag over the presidential residence.

Beyond their symbolic pageantry, these coordinated events were anything but innocent and a disconcerting reminder (for many audiences in the Falklands, in particular) of Argentina’s rekindled territorial aspirations over territories in the southwest Atlantic.

SantiagoIn Santiago, protesters wave a range of flags, including the Wenufoye (in the foreground), the flag of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group. Image: Mauricio Quevedo/Shutterstock

The foreign minister, Felipe Solá, stated on Twitter that, ‘We will continue on this journey relentlessly until the day that our flag is once again flying throughout the national territory’, in reference to ‘lost’ territories (the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and a portion of Antarctica) that Argentina believes are illegally occupied by the UK.

In response, the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) took the opportunity to figuratively ‘fly the flag for self-determination’ (although the Falklands’ actual flag, which commemorates the first sighting of the islands in 1592 by the crew of the English ship Desire, is also a common sight around the capital, Stanley), pointing in a press release to ‘a strong, self-determined democracy unequivocally clear about our identity and the flag that represents us’.

Of course, flags aren’t limited to these instances of ceremonial activity and they can and do feature in the everyday lives of national citizens. Nationalism scholar Jon Fox, co-editor of National Indifference and the History of Nationalism in Modern Europe, has drawn attention to the things that people do with nationalism in their ordinary lives, pointing out that they are anything but nationalist dupes in their use of state flags. Curiously, in Argentina, the Covid-19 pandemic and the cancellation of commemorations for the Malvinas War, have made national flags even more visible in public life, with citizens displaying them from balconies and windows to express their support for veterans.

Far from being distant from the corridors of political power, the apparently mundane use of national flags can also cause controversy and bring about responses from government ministries. So, for example, when Argentine citizens, including political representatives, wear clothing displaying the flags of England or the UK – typically rather clumsy geopolitical fashion statements rather than overt support for the British claim – emotions can run extremely high.

The FIG has also looked to restrict the public display of Argentina’s flag in the Falklands, given its potential to cause ‘harassment, alarm and distress’ for islanders, particularly those who can remember the traumas of the 1982 Argentine military invasion. Flags representing the ‘other side’ of geopolitical disputes, then, have the capacity to animate political and public reactions. This can even extend to the very smallest of national icons. Last year, Argentine politicians made international complaints about the appearance of the Falkland Islands’ flag emoji on mobile phone messaging apps, suggesting it be replaced with the flag of Tierra del Fuego (the province that incorporates the Islas Malvinas, according to Argentina’s constitution).

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STITCHING AN ALTERNATIVE FABRIC

Flags were also a highly visible aspect of protests on the streets of Chilean cities during the latter months of 2019 and early 2020. The scale of the protests, unprecedented in the country’s democratic era – more than 1.2 million people took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Santiago, in the largest protest on 25 October 2019 – centred on widespread discontent with the vast inequalities and injustices that continue to mark Chilean society. The protesters called for, among other things, a new national constitution to replace the one inherited from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1974–1990).

In the face of considerable repression from Chile’s national police forces, protesters employed creative performance and objects, including flags, to signify and embody their struggle. These flags did more than simply represent the struggle, however, as they were deliberately utilised to reflect feelings about the nation, as well as project alternative visions about what a more socially just Chile might look like. A plethora of flags were in evidence at many of the protests, ranging from the Wenufoye, the flag of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, to the flags of Chile’s major football clubs. The standard Chilean flag was also a common sight during the protests, as were various appropriations that saw it inverted, riddled with bullet holes to protest against police repression or inscribed with political slogans. Another appropriation that gained considerable traction and was ever-present at the protests and on social media was the black flag or bandera negra – a black and white version of the Chilean national flag with white lines and a white star drawn on a black background. Devoid of colour, the flag came to embody the sense of shame, mourning and despair protesters felt about the nation and was indicative of how citizens can be actively involved in re-designing and re-imagining seemingly immutable nationalist symbols, as well as the nation itself.

One event organised in the centre of Santiago in late December 2019 saw members of the local community congregate to stitch together their own giant version of the bandera negra. The gathering took place adjacent to streets that were witnessing some of the most violent confrontations and invited people to collaboratively create ‘a great canvas of resistance’, in the words of the event organiser. The collective creation of the bandera negra was, on one level, cathartic, facilitating the sharing of stories and coping strategies in light of the tumultuous events taking place. It also made space for the re-envisioning and re-working of the nation and its national symbols from the perspectives of citizens. As the protesters pieced together the black fabric, powerful speeches were delivered on an open mic that triggered further discussions about Chile and how its national politics might be re-imagined. As one woman stated: ‘Just as we’re sewing, in some way we have to do the same with the social fabric. We’re the ones who are changing our reality because successive governments have not done so.’

Decisions about what iconography went on the flag were made collectively among those taking part, so, for instance, the white star that adorned the flag differed in important ways from the five-pointed star on Chile’s national flag. Instead, the guñelve, a white star with eight points drawn from indigenous Mapuche iconography, was chosen. Stitching it on to their large bandera negra, which was subsequently displayed on the streets of Santiago and circulated on social media, symbolised these citizens’ aspirations for a Chile that was more socially inclusive and plurinational.

bulletholesIn Santiago, a protester waves a Chilean flag riddled with bullet holes. Image: R M Nunes/Shutterstock

THE POWER OF THE FLAG

Flags are powerful political and geopolitical materials that can do much work beyond the merely symbolic. This is a power that can be harnessed by both state representatives and citizens alike (as well as those who feel excluded from the nation and national citizenship). They can reflect emotions associated with the nation and its geopolitics, reaffirm or disrupt expressions of territorial nationalism and open up alternative political possibilities through the imagination of more socially just national communities.

These characteristics are certainly not unique to the Southern Cone region, as recent events around the world have shown. Flags have played their role in animating debates about the performance of national patriotism in the UK, as well as being used to contest levels of Chinese intervention in Hong Kong, and were highly visible during the storming of the US Capitol, an event that has led to considerable soul-searching about the plight of democracy in the USA.

The next time you happen to notice flags in the reporting of international news events, pay close attention to how and where they are deployed, by whom and with what affective and geopolitical consequences.

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