Fluent in the Language of Flags

Every year is a banner year for Whitney Smith

WHEN Whitney Smith was 10, he wrote Greenland's Chamber of Commerce about what he considered a serious matter: their lack of a national flag. ``None of the books had a flag for Greenland, and I didn't understand how it was possible that such a big country didn't have a flag of its own,'' says Dr. Smith. After receiving a letter from the governor himself, Smith learned that because Greenland was a colony of Denmark, it flew the Danish flag.

Forty years later, Smith's interest in flags has made him a world-renowned flag historian or vexillologist - a term he coined at 17.

In an interview in his Winchester, Mass., residence north of Boston (also home to the Flag Research Center), Smith enthusiastically discussed good flags, bad flags, flag burning, flag ``language,'' and Americans' unique attitude toward their national symbol.

``The whole point of flags is that they are a language,'' says the former professor of political science at Boston University. ``They are a language that uses color and symbols to communicate, instead of words. And they are used almost exclusively in a political context. They are a compressed set of emotions.''

The Nazis understood ``the power of flags,'' says Smith, and used it superbly - to an evil cause. ``The students in [Beijing's] Tiananmen Square had a whole forest of flags - all of which, just by their existence, were a claim against the government.''

National flags are statements of political objectives, not just colorful bits of history, Smith says. ``There are a lot of ways in which they're very closely associated with the main political events of our lives and previously,'' he says. People fight and die for flags. Take, for example, the Romanian flag that protesters flew with the Communist emblem cut out of its center: ``People were putting their lives on the line to make and fly publicly that kind of flag.''

The African National Congress's flag was outlawed in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed, yet that flag ``was always a rallying point for those who opposed apartheid,'' says Smith.

In China, as in most totalitarian countries, the official symbols are closely connected to the state, Smith continues. That's one reason he opposes any Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

``For very political reasons, we've been asked to choose between the substance of the liberties and the symbol,'' Smith says. The irony is, flag desecration hasn't been a big problem in this country. Before the Supreme Court decision a year ago, ``there had been - in my count - approximately 50 pieces of flag burning all over American history,'' he says.

Another irony, he says, is that so few citizens want to burn it: The ``American public has a 99.9 percent favorable approval rating of the flag. You can't buy that; you can't coerce that. That is genuine, spontaneous, and heartfelt, and is the envy of other countries!'' he says.

Flag desecration first became an issue in the 1800s, says the historian, because ``politicians were putting their names and slogans on flags and people thought this was disrespectful.''

Americans' reverence for the flag is nearly unique among nations, says Smith: ``There are some that come a little bit close - Haiti, interestingly enough.''

He attributes such pride to historical reasons: Two centuries ago, the United States didn't have a monarch, ethnic or cultural homogeneity, or a state religion - the things that bound most countries' citizens together. The Civil War threatened to remove - literally and figuratively - the stars of the flag. There was westward expansion and the idea of the American empire when we moved into Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii, says Smith. ``We were looking for authentic `roots,' particularly in the time of the Centennial in 1876.

``The Betsy Ross family brought forth the story - which historians cannot substantiate - and people lapped it up,'' he says.

Contrary to what one might think, Smith sees the commercialization of the American flag - in ads, folk art, paperweights, and pencils - as a healthy thing. ``A lot of it is in bad taste and I don't like a lot of it,'' he says. (Dogs in flag costumes, for example.) ``But it's healthy in a sense that the flag in this country belongs to us, not `them'; and in most countries ... the reason people don't have the relationship that we do with the flag is, that they think of the flag as belonging to the government. Here, it belongs to the average person.''

Smith says his work in vexillology does not focus on collecting flags (though he owns 2,000), but on documentation. ``I have somewhere in the order of 60 percent of everything that's ever been published'' on flags, he says.

His goal is to create a complete history of national flags. ``Nobody has ever done all the national flags of the countries so you could look up what Nicaragua was flying in 1884 and what everybody else was,'' says Smith, who has steeped himself in history. ``Being able to bring all of that together is a very exciting concept; it's almost as if it were a mission.'' He's been at it for more than 30 years. He's written 19 books on flags.

AND history keeps being made: New flags pop up. With the changes in Eastern Europe, for example, ``it's just amazing,'' says Smith.

When he began publishing the Flag Bulletin in 1961 he included a ``new flags'' column. ``I thought that once a year, twice a year, there would be a new flag somewhere.'' But every single issue of the bimonthly publication featured at least one new flag, and sometimes as many as 8 or 10.

``First, it was Africa - countries coming into independence,'' he explains. ``Then it was the Caribbean and the Pacific. Now it's Europe.'' Smith recently met with 70 people at the 13th International Congress of Vexillology in Melbourne, Australia.

Today, the Baltic nations are resurrecting the flags they flew when they were independent. Flags have sprouted in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Soviet Georgia. There have been changes in Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Namibia became independent in March. Anguilla in the Caribbean has the newest national flag.

All of these changes are actually ``at the core of what I do as a vexillologist,'' says Smith, who travels worldwide for his work. ``A lot of people have this image that this is an ivory-tower undertaking. And I wish it were,'' he says with a laugh. As the only person he knows who's a full-time, professional vexillologist, the bulk of his work is consulting for encyclopedias, flag manufacturers, and governments, and even designing flags.

The International Olympic Committee in Barcelona has contacted him, for example. If they are to spend $100,000 on flags, they need someone other than a manufacturer to ensure accuracy.

The wrong flags can mean embarrassment on an international scale, such as when the Concorde landed in pre-independent Angola showing the rebel National Liberation Front flag. The Portuguese government was not pleased: ``They made them take off and land again,'' says Smith.

More recently, real-estate magnate Donald Trump greeted Vice President Dan Quayle at New York's Plaza hotel with a vice-presidential flag - the wrong one. Mr. Trump had ordered it from a flagmaker who's reference book was outdated. ``It's so important to keep face on these sort of things,'' says Smith.

Not surprisingly, Smith is constantly consulted on flag etiquette, somewhat in the spirit of Emily Post. One woman once called to ask if she could embed a flag in ice for a centerpiece at a banquet, Smith recalls. He told her it was legal, but in his opinion, poor taste.

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