Friday Flagging: September Update

The next city I’m redesigning is Providence. Providence is going to take a lot more time, both in terms of the history/about section, and in terms of the actual design elements. To give you a sense of the latter, so far I’ve identified a seal for the mayor, two city seals (one historical and one present), a logo, a city flag and a flag of the city council. They are also intricately wrapped up in the politics of the city over the last 30 years, so Friday Flagging: Providence will push my schedule back a week.

I may end up splitting the “About” section off into its own thing, which will probably be entitled “A Brief History of Providence” or something like that, that will post Thursday.

That said, there’s still flag news going on.

Mississippi and flag changes

Mississippi’s Flag Commission has selected a new flag design for approval by voters. The flag, called “the New Magnolia” appears to have been based off of a design by Mississippi graphic designer Rocky Vaughn (with additional support from a few others) – Vaughn is given credit in most news reports and on the state website. It looks like his four initial designs were rejected, before the commission developed something from his work.

Vaughn’s been somewhat critical of the design as well, as he did present some much cleaner designs, and his version of the magnolia blossom in the center of the flag was more abstract and better, but between the two finalists, it seems like the right way to go.

The alternative was the “Great River Flag” – which has its own website. While I think the website does a good job justifying the design, in my view, relying too heavily on the territorial seal created a much more generic “American” design. While there were flourishes that made it Mississippi specific, I just don’t think they registered at a distance.

The Mississippi redesign process is also worthwhile to talk about. Essentially, the legislature created a special design commission (appointed by the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor who also acts as president of the State Senate, and the Speaker of the House) that took in designs and placed two restrictions on submissions: no design could use the Confederate flag, and all designs had to bear “In God We Trust”. In fact, the design will be officially known as the “In God We Trust Flag”. The selected design will then be put to a plebiscite, where it can be approved or rejected by voters. If it’s rejected, a new design will be selected and submitted to voters in the next election.

The terms are notable. First, the referendum doesn’t ask voters whether they want a new flag. The sole way for people to register that opinion is to reject the flag. Second, even if voters do reject it, the law is written in a way that suggests that the State will just keep submitting new designs indefinitely, so it’s only putting off the inevitable.

This isn’t the way we normally see flag referendums done. New Zealand’s referendum was kind of a mess, and more typical of such things. There, the redesign commission selected four flags, added a fifth under pressure, had voters select one then held a second referendum putting the winner up against the current flag. The current flag won.

Almost all feature the implicit choice: “do you want a new flag or not?” Mississippi is taking a different tack, which is saying “do you want this as your new flag, or some unspecified other one?” It’s also adding the “In God We Trust” requirement (which is a real handicap from a design perspective), which to me seems to be setting up supporters of the Confederate flag to vote against God, which is a pretty crafty maneuver. We’ll see what voters do now.

Learning from Canada

Canada had a famously difficult time selecting a new flag, and it’s kind of incredible to read about now, because the current flag is just so iconic, it’s hard to imagine that it’s from the 1960s. Essentially, after the Suez Crisis when Egypt rejected Canadian peacekeepers because they bore the Union Jack on their unofficial flag, the MP Lester Pearson became convinced they needed a new design. When he became Prime Minister, Pearson, despite having only a minority government (a government where the leading party hasn’t got a parliamentary majority, and relies on smaller parties on an ad hoc basis to pass legislation and budgets), used valuable political capital to push for a design change. He had a design drawn up, and brought it before parliament.

After a lot of debate, he agreed to create a 15-member committee of MPs to take design submissions, and said he would accept the recommendation of that committee if it was overwhelming, so like 12-14 votes (committee chairs don’t vote in the Canadian parliamentary system); otherwise, he’d drop it. Since the committee was basically split 50-50 between supporters of Pearson and supporters of the Opposition (again, chairs don’t vote). Since the Opposition didn’t want a flag change and Pearson had his heart set on his submitted design, all that needed to be done would be to vote for whatever design opposed Pearson’s. That would be a tie, and nowhere close to the vote threshold Pearson had imposed.

Unbeknownst to both the Opposition and Pearson, was that his point man on the committee, John Matheson, had been working on an alternative design based on a suggestion by a professor named George Stanley. When it came down to the key committee vote, it was that design which went up against Pearson’s. The night before the vote, someone on the Government side suggested all voting for that design, which would produce a unanimous recommendation. And, much to the consternation of the Opposition, instead of Pearson’s design, his supporters all voted for what would become the current flag.

That wasn’t the end, of course. The vote to actually submit the recommended design to Parliament was much closer, and once it made it to Parliament, it was filibustered for nearly three months, before a French Canadian political party got so sick of it grinding all business to a halt that they defected and allowed for a vote to take place.

Nowadays, the Canadian flag is one of the most recognizable flags in the world, an icon of the country, and used by Americans overly fearful of foreigners to mask their nationality when abroad.

Finally, Matt Ford at The New Republic has written an article on the recent Mississippi flag pick entitled “Your State Flag Might Not Be Racist, but It’s Offensively Ugly” which takes state flags to task.

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