Thursday, September 18, 2014

Vexing Vexillology

Leading up to today's referendum in Scotland on independence, CNN has been giving the issue extensive coverage and at some point even trotted out an expert in...vexillology.

I confess, I never knew such a word existed, or even that there was an academic field justifying such an cryptic name, though in truth I sometimes have found myself interested in the subject, on a superficial level. The subject in question is the study of flags, and the precise reason CNN brought a vexillologist into the studio was to discuss what Scottish independence might mean for the Union Jack, the iconic British flag that nowadays makes me think, first and foremost, of Austin Powers. Yeah, Baby!

All kidding aside, the Union Jack encapsulates a lot of actual history, being as it is a “union” of flags from three kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland. These neighboring countries with shared histories began, in 1603, to also share the same king, James I, apparently quite the multitasking monarch who also lent his name to the best-known version of the Christian Bible.

The Union Jack: iconic mashup of saintly symbols.

The union between the three kingdoms was formalized over the next two centuries, eventually giving rise to a need for a new national banner, the Union Jack, created by overlaying the crosses of three patron saints, George for England, Andrew for Scotland, and – the only one to spawn a holiday observed around the world by wearing something green and drinking beer (often also green) – Patrick from the Emerald Isle.

The fact that St. Patrick’s cross (basically a big red “X”) remains on the flag nearly a hundred years after most of Ireland left the union begs the question: why would the departure of Scotland require any modification to the Union Jack anyway? Why bother changing it?

After all, with the British “brand” being so closely linked to the Union Jack, maybe keeping the flag as it is, and just happily living with the fiction that the “union” it represents still exists, would be the easiest course. No one has to know.

What is more interesting to me, in general, is the role that the cross of St. Andrew representing Scotland on the Union Jack, and of course on the Scottish flag itself, has oddly come to play in the symbolism of rebellion. I’m sure this is mostly coincidence. Or is it?

The flag of Scotland, bearing the cross of St. Andrew.
At the moment, the cross that is now identified with Scotland’s drive for independence has also emerged, with different colors, as the battle flag for the so-called Federal State of Novorossiya, the proxy state that Russia is apparently trying to create in eastern Ukraine.

The Novorossiya flag, in turn, is strikingly similar to the Confederate States of America’s Battle Flag, which is even today a popular symbol of rebellion for some misguided folks in the US who strangely enough find “honor” in the fact that some Americans were willing to wage war on the United States in the defense of their “right” to own other human beings. A disturbing kind of nostalgia.

Three rebellious movements, all sporting the cross of St. Andrew. Though that might look like a pattern, it is all perfectly random.

Supposedly, St. Andrew’s cross had no special significance for the southern US or, for that matter, racism. Andrew is not the patron saint of lost causes (that, in fact, would be Jude, who brings to mind a catchy tune sang by four lads from the then-still-united United Kingdom).

According to traditional mythology, Apostle Andrew, not wanting to upstage the Messiah by having himself martyred in an entirely copycat fashion, opted to be crucified on a large wooden “X” instead. I’ve read that, likewise, when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was trying to choose between a flag with the regular upright “Latin” cross of Jesus or one with the diagonal cross of St. Andrew, they chose the “X”, influenced in part by a Jewish Southerner who suggested the more obviously Christian symbol of the Latin cross wasn’t appropriate on a national flag.

CSA Battle Flag: detestable symbol of treasonous rebellion.
If true, I find it deliciously ironic to think that, in this age when many religious Southerners get bent out of shape at any hint that the prominence of Christian symbolism is being threatened, a politically incorrect emblem of the “Lost Cause” cherished by some of the same folks might itself have been the product of a certain political correctness, circa 1861.

While the use of St. Andrew’s cross by CSA rebels was accidental, its use by Novorossiya rebels is completely natural and fits well with a certain kind of religious nationalism. St. Andrew is said to have personally traveled and preached to the peoples living on the north shore of the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, which is why he was adopted as a venerated patron saint of those nations.

It’s less obvious why he would also be the patron of part of faraway Great Britain. He, of course, never traveled anywhere near the glens, lochs and firths of Scotland, but part of him (literally, pieces of his body) reputedly did end up there, obviously good enough to win a place in the hearts of the Scots – and on their flag.

Likewise, St. Andrew’s cross earned itself a place in Russian naval vexillology. The cross was incorporated in a flag designed by no less than Peter the Great, though basically just a knockoff of the British Union Jack. In the 1990s, as all communist emblems were discarded following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy restored the imperial flags, complete with the original logo commemorating the martyrdom of a roving apostle. Back to the future, you might say.

Battle flag of "Novorossiya", retro symbol
for a retro militia.
I suppose the Russian Navy Jack could have been the inspiration behind the Novorossiya militia adopting the same colors for its own flag (blue cross on a red field), though I can’t help thinking that in that choice there also wasn’t a sly salute to the folklore of rebellion.

Back in the 1970s in Finland there was a subculture of young men who styled themselves as rebels and dressed like James Dean. They wore denim jacket and slicked-back hair and were called “diinari” (Deanari, get it?). I recall seeing a photo in National Geographic once of one such young Finn with a Confederate Battle Flag sewn onto his jacket. So strong is the link between the CSA flag and rebellion that, even in a place as far removed from Dixie as Finland, the connection was completely clear. The symbolism was understood.

Maybe that’s true even today in the backwaters of Europe, where raising a flag that, consciously or not, resembles as closely as possible the universal symbol of an ill-fated rebellion seems perfectly appropriate for belligerent rebel misfits who play by their own “rules”.

And by that, I don’t mean the Scots. 


  1. WRT St.Patrick's day, did you mean "around the world from Ireland" or "around the world"? It's just that the latter is not quite as truthful a statement...

    Of course, after Ireland left, maybe they were just "F@*k it, it's Jersey". No such escape is available with the Saltire.

  2. Again, because I've spent my entire life so far out of the mainstream of popular thought, flags mean almost nothing to me. Salute 'em. Honor 'em. Burn 'em. I don't care. To think that the patch of dirt on which I live can be reduced to a limp bit of fabric is laughable.

    I also have always been horrified by those who look with unrealized nostalgia on the Confederate flag. I could wipe my ass with the damned thing.

    "Vexillology", though. That's a new one for me, too.

    And, yes, those right wing neo-Nazi rebel Ukraine folk in Kiev are indeed scum of the Earth, as you obliquely note.

    1. Ah, some willful misunderstanding there, I think. In my book, militant separatists are “rebels” by definition and governments (as in Kiev) that try to prevent secessions are “not rebels”.

      Of course, you’re trying to shift the characterization to the protesters in the Maidan last winter. I wouldn’t call them “rebels” (or “Nazis” or “scum of the Earth” – which by the way, are your words, not mine, unless that’s what “belligerent misfits” means, obliquely). Semantics can be such a swamp.

      Anyway, there’s a line you have to cross to go from “protests” to “armed rebellion”. In my view, those folks in Donbas using field artillery in the name of Russian nationalism crossed it.