Britain: "I claim India for Britain!"
India: "You can't claim us, we live here! Five hundred million of us!"
Britain: "Do you have a flag...?”
– Eddie Izzard
Vexillography, the practice of designing flags, evolved from heraldry. To “herald” something, to announce, suggests a speaker and an audience – and what are heralds for, if not to state across the chasm of perception, “Here I am!” You do not need to know who is surrendering behind the waving white flag above a battlefield; you only need to know that they won’t fire at you. The coat of arms adorning shields is quickly recognized at a distance, easier to “tell apart” than faces, rich in meaning (pictures worth a thousand words, and all).
Flags are shorthand for identity, and consequently they’ve evolved along with our expanding sense of self – from tribal scarring patterns, to the coat of arms denoting feudal houses, to more modern, massive magical devices, like Old Glory sailing parachute-sized over Texas auto dealerships. Doesn’t matter if the flag describes a boundary around an “us” of three, or thirty, or three hundred million people; either you are in, or you are out.
Without a flag, you don’t “exist” – just look at how the tribes of Israel were global refugees before they staked their claim, a flag required to participate in our supposedly United Nations. But if you do not have to set yourself apart, no flag is necessary. Flags and competition over scarce resources go together – but if everyone around is “self,” the symbols of the self aren’t separate from the contents of our raw experience, a 1:1 map-to-territory superimposition, no need to cut the world into categories. Then self and symbol both collapse as meaningless distinctions, no boundary to guard, no nations to unite.
Somewhere between the separation-mindedness that pledges its allegiance to “the” flag, and undivided mind in which the whole of life is effortless and given, we have “The Flag of Planet Earth.” Oskar Pernefeldt’s proposed design, a graduation project at the Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, is a potent image: seven rings all interlocked within a field of brilliant blue, the flag communicates how everything on Earth is linked, and calls to mind the sacred symbol of the Seed of Life. But, unintentionally, it’s an artifact of separation: setting international identity apart from everything that came before, and setting Earth apart from all else in the cosmos. Well-intended as the project seems to be, the concept mock-ups show us planting flags in Martian soil and hoisting them at football games – more conquest, ownership, appropriation, habits that we’re well advised to leave behind us as we learn to be true “cosmopolitans,” identified as indivisible and inextricable participants in unity.
Perhaps a name tag like the Flag of Earth can be excused on our first day as universal citizens, but someday we’ll regard such seeming-noble notions as the acts of childhood, no longer needing banners under which to join our separate factions. We won’t be “international,” because our solidarity is grounded in our prior unity, within which tribes and nation-states precipitate like bubbles in the ocean.
We’ll likely go on heralding our Earthling-ness to any beings we encounter in the great electric void – but as the children of creation, we will recognize whomever we encounter not as “aliens” but novel other-selves, collaborators in the constantly-exfoliating non-duality each “us” and every “them” is, all together. We’ll have no need to find a flag to represent us all, and flags will come untied from any need to symbolize, proliferating in a cosmic sea of color, celebrating everybody, all at once.