Friday, April 29, 2016

State Flags, Part 3

Part 3: State Flags that Pretty Much Suck

So, this is Connecticut's flag. As will become a recurring theme from here on, eye-strain is a serious problem. You really have to view it at close range, or through a spyglass, to recognize that the objects on that fancy shield are three grape vines, each bearing three bunches of grapes, and that the motto on the ribbon beneath is "Qui transtulit sustinet", Latin for "He who transplanted, sustains." Let me say it now for the first time: State seals should not be depicted on flags. This one could be worse; the original state seal had 15 grape vines on it. There is no clear consensus about what the current three signify; possibly three early settlements in the Connecticut colony.

This flag has one line of readable text - the date on which Delaware ratified the U.S. constitution, becoming the first state - and one, on the ribbon inside the yellow lozenge, that says "Liberty and Independence" in letters too small and faint to read even at fairly close range. Inside that lozenge is sort of a seal within a seal, the outer featuring a farmer with his hoe, opposite a hunter with his rifle - oh! how that must gripe Joe Biden! Between them, even smaller, are a sailing ship, a braid of yellow and blue rope, an ear of corn, a shock of wheat, and a cow so tiny that it looks like a dog, plus a lot of space-wasting decorative frou-frou. It could all be blown up without pushing anything out of the frame; or, by leaving some stuff out, what remains could be magnified even more. How about just crossing the rifle and the hoe in the center of the flag and leaving it at that?

Florida's flag is the same as Alabama's, only with the addition of the Florida state seal smack in the center. In 1985, the design was updated with an even busier version of the state seal than was there before. It features a Seminole woman scattering hibiscus flowers on the shore near a palm tree, with a steam ship in the background passing in front of a sunset, and the ring around it has room not only for the the words "Great Seal of the State of Florida" but also for "In God We Trust." On top of all this tiny, crowded, hard-to-see stuff, there is the baggage of African American civil rights. State laws that kept black folks on the fringes of society passed shortly after the Civil War, coinciding with a flag design that used the St. Andrew cross as a thinly veiled reminder of the Confederate stars and bars. Maybe they should just put a big white star in the middle of a blue field, like the flag of the short-lived Republic of West Florida (1810), and call it a flag. Or, they could take the seal off and put the Bourbon saw-teeth back on the St. Andrew cross, to distinguish it from Alabama's flag. Heck, a Miami dolphin would be an improvement over this!

In concept, Georgia's is a pretty straightforward flag: three horizontal bars, alternating red-white-red; a blue canton with a circle of 13 stars representing the original colonies; within it, a colonial figure standing with sword drawn under a three-columned arch representing the branches of the government... But then there's all this text. It says "Constitution" above the arch, "In God We Trust" under it, and "Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation" on a sort of marquis winding through it. All that eye-strain puts this in the "kind of sucks" category, though if you lower your expectations and stop trying to read the words, it's otherwise a pretty decent design.

The flag of Illinois displays most of the imagery of the state seal, excepting the decorative border; that, at least, is a mercy. There's already too much stuff packed into the emblem on this white field. In front of a sunrise over some river or other, there's an eagle perched on a rock bearing two dates - 1818, the year of Illinois' statehood, and 1868, when the state seal was redesigned - though it has been updated several times since then. There's a red, white, and blue, stars-and-stripes shield (13 stars, of course) apparently crushing an olive branch against the stubbly ground; and caught in the eagle's beak is a patently unreadable state motto with black text on a red ribbon. At high magnification, and with some effort, you can detect that it reads "State Sovereignty, National Union" - though, thanks to the guy who designed it being a passive-aggressive bastard (source), the first part of the motto appears below the second, and the word "sovereignty" is upside-down to boot. Oh yeah, and there's the name ILLINOIS down there, too. Why bother having all this symbolism if you're just going to give the game away? The state should decide between either putting ILLINOIS in big block letters on a white field, or maybe just letting that eagle hover with the stars-and-stripes shield in its claws.

So, Iowa's flag: the vertical blue, white, and red bands are great; the eagle is all right; and the bold red name IOWA, though unnecessary, is at least legible. But then there's this long streamer caught in the eagle's beak, and here's what is written on it: "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." It's like they had Yoda wrote it, to make it hard even for people with eyes sharp enough to make out the text. Couldn't they have stuck something more symbolic in the eagle's beak, like crossed stalks of wheat and corn? Interestingly, the tricolor design is a nod to Iowa having previously belonged to France.

Michigan's flag is another hot mess. It features three (3) Latin mottos: "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one), Tuebor (I will defend), and "Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam CIRCUMSPICE" (If you seek an amiable peninsula, LOOK AROUND" - emphasis in the original. It's got an elk, a moose, an eagle, and various items of greenery, and all sized for pretty good visibility. But then, between these framing creatures and the word TUEBOR, there's a tiny, tiny man standing on the shore of a peninsula with a sunrise behind him, holding a rifle and raising his hand in greeting. The description of what all this stuff signifies is so much yak, yak, yak. It makes me tired, starting with my eyes. An eagle, an elk, a moose, and a shield bearing the device TUEBOR would probably be enough.

Like unto it is the flag of my current home state, Missouri. Working from the outer edges in, it starts OK with bands of red, white, and blue signifying, among other things, that it once belonged to France; and at the center, inside a ring of blue, a circle of 24 white stars identifying Missouri as the 24th state. But the trouble stars with the tiny, busy, eye-strain-inducing state seal inside that circle, containing (among other things) another set of 24 stars standing for the same thing as the first. Within that seal are three blocks of text: first the Roman numeral for the year 1820, the year of the Missouri Compromise, though Missouri didn't achieve statehood until 1821; then the motto "United we stand, divided we fall," incongruously inscribed on a belt whose buckle signifies that the state can always secede from the union if need be (ha!); and the Latin motto "Salus populi suprema lex esto" (Let the good of the people be the supreme law). Inside the belt are a semicircle featuring the seal of the U.S. on white, a white crescent moon on blue representing growth, and a white bear silhouetted on red. All this forms a shield held up by two much larger grizzly bears (for strength and bravery), topped by a helmet that supposedly represents sovereignty. I have found a couple explanations of this seal that mention the meaning of the cloud surrounding the stars (referring to the troubles surrounding Missouri's admission to the union), but nowhere can I find an explanation for the green things that appear to be sprouting out of the neck of that knight's helmet. Seriously, this flag wouldn't lose any of its effect if you left out everything but the tricolour bands, the blue ring with 24 white stars, and maybe Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear inside it.

Mississippi's flag is pretty simple and direct, but it probably shouldn't be allowed to stand. On the one hand, the stars-and-bars canton is pretty much an upward-extended middle finger toward the African American community, which endured a century of relegation to second-class citizenry thanks to the racist laws propped up by the sort of people who could be expected to flaunt the Confederate colors on their post-Civil War state flag. It's sort of like showing the world the whole war to end slavery was fought for nothing. On the other hand, if you look at the Civil War as being primarily about the indivisibility of the union vs. state sovereignty, this little token of rebellion is, again, like showing the world the whole war to preserve the union was fought for nothing. Either way, it's a nasty piece of work. If Mississippians want their state to command more respect, they might want to reconsider the outfit they dress her in. It wouldn't take much. They could just bring back their old flag (1861-94), which featured a magnolia tree on a white field, with a white star on a blue canton, and a red band along the fly edge. Or they could go with the design that failed in a 2001 referendum, replacing the stars-and-bars with 20 white stars on a blue canton.

The North Dakota flag's official proportions are 26:33, making it unusually short, and they might want to stick with that, just to be unique. It's got an eagle emblem, similar to the seal of the U.S., clutching a ribbon bearing the tiny text "E pluribus unum" in its beak, and arrows and greenery in its claws; it has thirteen stars in two arcs, topped by a more or less crown-shaped pattern of radiating gold lines, all on a blue field with a fancy device saying NORTH DAKOTA at the bottom. Now suppose you just deleted everything but the 13 stars and that crown gizmo? They're practically the only design elements that stand out, except for that miserable text thingy at the bottom.

So Delaware had a farmer and a hunter; Michigan had an elk and a moose; Missouri had two grizzlies; New Jersey continues the tradition of having its escutcheon supported by a pair of allegorical characters, only this time they're goddesses - Liberty and Ceres. In case you miss the point, they stand on a ribbon that says "Liberty and Prosperity" - if you can squint hard enough to read it. Between them is a blue shield decorated with three plows (because agriculture is exactly what you think of when New Jersey comes up in conversation), topped by a knight's helmet, topped in turn by a horse's head (?), with some kind of plumes or foliage curling luxuriously over the goddesses' heads; this last bit, again, is never mentioned in explanations of these symbols. I like the flag's background color. I hope they keep that. But they should really do something about the scale of all these fussy details. Perhaps more shield and less (meaning none) of the horse's head/plumed helmet. And no words!!!

At least with New York's state flag, you can read the word under the goddesses: EXCELSIOR (higher). The goddesses this time are Liberty (the cap on a stick) and justice (the blindfold and scales). The version of this flag that flew until 1901 even had the same background color as New Jersey's. Between the goddesses, and beneath an eagle astride the globe, is a shield depicting the sun rising over a mountain beyond a river; and on the river, a square-rigged ship and a fore-and-aft-rigged sloop; a grassy meadow in the foreground. It's loaded with allegorical significance, right down to the details of the globe and the appearance of the goddesses; but you can't see much of it from far enough away not to have your eye taken out by its flapping in the wind. I would suggest either filling the center of the flag with the eagle and globe, or with the scene depicted on the shield, and letting it run right to the edges of the fabric.

Pennsylvania's copy of the "two figures holding up a shield" concept features two horses, an eagle, the virtually unreadable "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence," a sailing ship, a plow, some shocks of wheat, and a shade of blue to which I am starting to become numb. Without wasting any more time on this supremely refined piece of mediocrity - a contrast in every way to Oregon's miserable flag - I would suggest an easy fix: fill the entire flag with the contents of that shield. Have a ship sailing across a blue band, a plow cutting through a gold one, and sheaves of grain standing on a green one, period!

South Dakota's flag has changed a couple of times, and gotten worse each time. It started out with a nice yellow sun on a cyan field, with the unnecessary words SOUTH DAKOTA - THE SUNSHINE STATE twisted around it (1909-63). Then the field changed to royal blue and the state seal replaced the disk of the sun, redundantly identifying itself as STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA - GREAT 1889 SEAL (because that's how designers of state seals roll), and containing even tinier text saying, "Under God the People Rule," plus an indescribably tiny landscape which, suiting the word to the action, I shall now decline to describe. That was 1963-92. In 1992 the flag was "improved" again, by returning to the original cyan field and changing the state motto to THE MOUNT RUSHMORE STATE - without fixing any of the other problems, including the doubly redundant incorporation of the state's name on its own flag. Politicians: All they know how to do is take something mediocre and make it worse. If they had a lick of sense, they would put Mount Rushmore on the flag, period.

Utah's flag isn't terrible, compared to some of the others in this chapter. True, it has a blue field, which after viewing all these state flags is beginning to leave an indelible image on my optic nerve. It has an eagle presiding over two crossed American flags - really? Flags within flags? It has, like Illinois' flag, two dates on it - an almost unreadable 1847, the year the Mormon settlers arrived, and a somewhat larger 1896, when Utah became a state. It has the words(!) INDUSTRY and UTAH, at least one of which is an admission that the flag is failing at its job. And in the middle of it all, on a white shield, is a beehive - a symbol, don't you know, of industry! Why not just show a big beehive on a white field?

Virginia's current flag is an amusing diversion from the theme of two allegorical figures holding up a shield. Framed by the words (gah!) VIRGINIA and SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS (Thus always to tyrants), it depicts the triumph of Virtus, the Roman genius of military strength, over tyranny. The tyrant is depicted clutching a broken chain and a whip, with his crown fallen nearby; his vanquisher stands on his neck holding a spear and a sheathed dagger. All this is enclosed within a floral border, in a white disk, on a (ugh!) blue field. It could do without the word VIRGINIA; I might let the Latin motto ride. But perhaps there is a way for it to fill more of the flag, eliminating the need for floral borders and blue fields. Hmm?

So, these flags pretty much suck, but they're mostly fixable. If your state hasn't been mentioned by now... sorry, but its flag bites ass. Totally. See Part 4, if you dare.

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