Reclaiming our icons
So here’s the story: The year is 1219, and Valdemar II. Sejr has gone on a crusade through the Baltics. Valdemar, by the way, is the king of Denmark, not the guy from Harry Potter. He’s come to Estonia to chew bubblegum and kick ass, but he’s all out of ass, and is being run out of town by the Estonian army at Lyndanisse. It’s at moments like this that a guy starts praying. And behold, a red and white flag falls from the sky, Valdemar defeats the boss, and goes on to the next level.
To spell it out: The Danish flag is the oldest in the world, and was given to the Danes by God himself. Which is why this week, the Danish government appropriated €150K towards building a monument in Lyndanisse.
I forgive you if you have trouble finding controversy in the fact that a country (which you think is the capital of Holland) spends peanuts celebrating an event that’s older than Zsa Zsa Gabor. I guess it’s fair to say that the discussion sparked by the initiative has less to do with the initiative itself than who is proposing it: The idea is practically covered with fingerprints from the right wing Danish People’s Party.
Flags are easy pray for nationalists, and if you live in Denmark it’s hard to avoid associating the flag with the political right wing. This doesn’t just present a challenge at birthdays and anniversaries. You might be surprised at how often it happens: An icon that’s supposed to represent your values and heritage gets hijacked by people with opposing convictions. The academic discipline of studying this is called semiotics, but let’s be honest: symbols are rarely hijacked with academic elegance.
In 2000, Governor David Beasley of South Carolina had the Confederate Flag removed from City Hall, much to the displeasure of his voters. His argumentation:
When the [flag] flies above City Hall, it flies in a vacuum. It’s meaning is not defined by law. Because of this, any group can give the flag any meaning…
Which, of course, they do; throughout the American south, the Confederate flag is used by the Clan, ultimately making it a symbol of racism.
Here’s the opposing argument: The Confederate flag has a very clear meaning, which is written in stone on a South Carolina monument for those who fell in the Civil War:
In the hopelessness of the hospitals, the despair of defeat, and the short, sharp agony of struggle, the South Carolinians who answered the call of their State did so in the belief that here at home, they would not be forgotten.
It would seem that the main reason for the controversy, again, is that another group has claimed the symbol as their own. So what to do? Here’s what my man Nelson Mandela (who’s almost as old as Zsa Zsa Gabor) did:
Under apartheid soccer was for blacks while rugby was for whites. This made the national rugby team, The Springboks, a convenient symbol of white apartheid. But at the first post-apartheid game, Mandela walked on to the field wearing the team jersey (of course #6, the captain), and wished the team good luck. Much besides the point, South Africa lost the game.
I’m not saying it was free wheelin’ all the way, but one cannot deny the massive public following of the “One Team, One Country” movement. Mandela systematically worked to diffuse the symbols of the apartheid era, going as far as to integrate the old national song into the new one.
Did you pledge allegiance today?
The tribes of today are fragmented and organized in so many different ways that it’s no longer only national symbols that tell our stories. This is also why we should aim to incorporate a certain degree of flexibility in any brand that we develop. An organization is only a group of individuals, and if these individuals cannot recognize themselves in the brand that represents them (or that pays their salary) they will feel alienated, leaving the brand open to any other meaning or cause. Just look at what happened to Burberry (casuals and chavs) or New Balance (skinheads and neo-nazi’s).
However, if the risk of symbols is that anyone can attach any meaning to them, then that’s also the opportunity. And I’m inclined to think that anyone whining about the hijacking of a symbol ought to get out of their ivory towers stake their own claims.
Let us reclaim our symbols by embracing them. If you’re into tolerance, then print the Danish flag on t-shirts and hand them out to every Somali on Blågårds Plads. If you’re a fan of the Second Amendment, then paint your Browning in red, white, and blue. If you’re a sexual deviant, then make a new national costume for the gimp.
If he’s sleeping, wake him up.