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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • In 1989,

  • an artist by the name of Dread Scott,

  • who has also graced the TED stage,

  • created a piece of art in Chicago,

  • where he simply placed an American flag on the ground

  • and then invited you the viewer to go and stand on that flag

  • and record how it felt in a journal.

  • And to me, one of the most powerful things written in that journal, in essence, says,

  • "Why are we so OK

  • with homeless people,

  • with human beings laying on the ground,

  • but not flags?"

  • And to some of you, this piece of art is quite disturbing.

  • And that's kind of the point of this talk --

  • not to upset you or to make you mad

  • but to prove to you that flags have an incredible power,

  • and that even if you think you don't care about flags, you do.

  • You know you do.

  • Alright.

  • By the end of it, I hope that you're inspired

  • to go out and harness this power of flags and fight for a better world.

  • But before we get there,

  • we're going to start on the opposite end of the spectrum.

  • And before I show you the next stuff, I need to say that anything I show here

  • is not an endorsement,

  • it's usually quite the opposite.

  • But more than anything, what I want to do is create a space here

  • where we can look at these flags, these designs,

  • and examine how they make us feel.

  • We're going to talk about our emotions.

  • Is that OK with everybody?

  • OK.

  • Are you ready for your first flag?

  • Cool, we'll start with an easy one.

  • That was a joke. (Laughs)

  • So, some of you may be a little bit uneasy sitting in a room with this.

  • I'm certainly feeling uneasy standing in front of it.

  • Some of you may be feeling a little bit of pride.

  • And that's understandable. This is Texas. This is not a rare sight, is it?

  • But let's start with the facts.

  • So this is not the Confederate flag. OK?

  • This is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

  • led by General Robert E. Lee.

  • So next time someone tells you that this is their heritage,

  • unless their family fought for that very specific militia,

  • they're wrong, alright?

  • And you have a flag expert's permission to tell them so.

  • This flag rose into prominence during the mid-1950s and '60s

  • as a response to the growing Civil Rights Movement.

  • And then of course today,

  • it has come to represent the Confederacy to most of us.

  • But I shouldn't have to remind you what the Confederacy is.

  • It was a rogue nation

  • that rose up against the United States,

  • waged war on the US,

  • and at one point in time,

  • this was one of the most un-American things you could have.

  • But yet, this flag is protected

  • by the same laws that protect the United States flag

  • in the states of Florida, Georgia,

  • South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana.

  • But let's pick on Georgia for a second, shall we?

  • So in 1956,

  • a few years after desegregation was mandated in public schools,

  • Georgia changed their state flag to this.

  • I think everyone watching can agree

  • that this was not meant to be a flag that every Georgian was proud to fly

  • outside of their home, was it?

  • No.

  • Just like all of the Confederate statues erected in the mid-1950s and '60s,

  • this was meant to be a symbol of who was in charge

  • and who was not.

  • This remained the flag of Georgia

  • until the year 2001,

  • and in that year, they changed their flag

  • to this.

  • Now, as a flag expert, I can tell you: this is officially ugly.

  • OK? It's OK to laugh at this flag.

  • It's ugly, and because it's so ugly,

  • that's one of the reasons they changed it just two years later.

  • They had a referendum

  • where they got to choose between that thing

  • and then what is now the current flag of Georgia.

  • Now some of you might be wondering,

  • "Wait a second, Michael --

  • if that before wasn't the Confederate flag,

  • what was the Confederate flag?"

  • Georgia flies the first flag of the Confederate States of America

  • to this day.

  • They just slapped their state seal on it.

  • Well, let's go back to our emotions for a second.

  • That didn't punch you in the gut as much as the other one did, did it?

  • Right?

  • And that's why I love flags.

  • They are the simplest pieces of design,

  • usually just two or three colors,

  • just some bars or stripes.

  • But yet, they can invoke the deepest emotions within us.

  • They'll make us swell with pride

  • or burn with hatred.

  • We will die for a flag

  • or even kill for one.

  • One of my favorite designers, his name is Wally Olins,

  • they call him the father of nation branding,

  • and he's quoted as saying

  • that "Everyone wants to belong,

  • and then they want to display symbols of belonging."

  • And it's crazy that these pieces of cloth that are just sewn together or dyed

  • come to be such a sacred item,

  • and that's because they become parts of our identity.

  • They are powerful tools to unify

  • but equally powerful tools to divide.

  • You ready for the next flag?

  • Right.

  • Take a moment.

  • Really examine how you felt when this hit the screen.

  • I'm going to change the slide pretty quickly

  • so you don't take pictures of me in front of this one.

  • (Laughter)

  • Alright?

  • So Germany after World War I,

  • it was in a pretty bad state,

  • and a young Adolf Hitler had a lot of -- let's call them -- "ideas,"

  • of how Germany got to where they'd gotten

  • and how to get them out.

  • He spent entire chapters in his book "Mein Kampf,"

  • which I don't recommend reading,

  • about how Germany lost World War I

  • partially because the British had better graphic design

  • and better propaganda.

  • So, as the Nazi Party rose,

  • Hitler created one of the thickest brand guides I've ever seen.

  • It's thicker than most company brand guides today,

  • and in it, he details titles and uniforms

  • and lots and lots of flags.

  • Hitler knew the power of flags.

  • He says in "Mein Kampf,"

  • "The new flag ... should prove effective as a large poster,

  • [because] in hundreds of thousands of cases

  • a really striking emblem may be the first cause

  • of awakening interest in a movement."

  • He was an artist, after all.

  • He knew the power of visual identity and uniforms

  • could reignite the German identity.

  • And to millions of Germans, this was a welcome sign.

  • But of course, this was also a mark of death to others.

  • We don't often think of flags as weapons,

  • but like the Confederate battle flag,

  • the Germans used their flag

  • to make an out-group feel unwelcome

  • and less than.

  • You see, when you create a flag, you immediately do two things:

  • you create an in-group,

  • a group that's meant to be represented by the symbol,

  • but then, inevitably, you create an out-group.

  • And usually, that's subtle.

  • It's a byproduct.

  • It's usually not the intent.

  • But the Germans were very clear as to who was represented by the swastika

  • and who was not.

  • In 1935, Jewish people were banned from flying German flags.

  • And in this way,

  • the Germans, maybe more than any other time in history,

  • used the dual power of flags

  • to unite but also to divide.

  • Flags were used as identity weapons.

  • And now, in 2019, the Nazi flag is banned from being flown

  • by anyone in Germany

  • and anyone in Austria, in Hungary, in Russia and in Ukraine.

  • Think about that.

  • It's a piece of cloth, but it's banned.

  • On its face, that sounds crazy.

  • But I don't think anyone in this room would disagree

  • that it's probably good.

  • Sounds a lot like a weapon.

  • As a vexillologist,

  • sometimes the most interesting thing about a flag

  • is not so much its design,

  • but it's those laws around the flag.

  • For instance,

  • in India, to create an Indian flag,

  • you must use a hand-spun cloth named "khadi."

  • If you make a flag out of anything else,

  • you could go to jail for up to three years.

  • It's crazy.

  • Here in Texas,

  • we've all heard

  • that the Texas flag is the only state flag that can fly at the same height

  • as the US, flag, right?

  • Because we were a nation before we were a state.

  • Who here has heard that?

  • Yeah.

  • Well, I'm here to tell you that is completely false. OK?

  • First of all, we were not the only state that was a nation before joining up.

  • And secondly, all state flags can fly at the same height as the US flag

  • according to the US flag code.

  • And I don't have to ask you how you feel about this one, right?

  • Most of us grew up pledging allegiance to this every morning,

  • knowing we should never let it touch the ground, etc.

  • We take our flag code very seriously here in the United States.

  • You remember, recently some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

  • It was a big controversy.

  • They were breaking the flag code.

  • It states during the national anthem,

  • stand at attention, hand at the heart, etc.

  • But what was fascinating to me as a vexillologist

  • is that I didn't see anyone getting upset

  • when something like this happens.

  • The flag code says, "The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally,

  • but always aloft and free."

  • So sometimes during the exact same national anthem,

  • this was being done, and no one's upset.

  • Or this. This happens all the time.

  • The flag code is clear:

  • "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or on an athletic uniform."

  • This is Texas A&M baseball,

  • not to get them in trouble, but this happens all the time,

  • especially in November.

  • I'm sure, I can almost guarantee when you leave here tonight,

  • you will see on the back of someone's car or truck

  • a black and white American flag with a blue stripe,

  • a thin blue line, right?

  • Blue Lives Matter.

  • That breaks the flag code in multiple ways.

  • But all of these things are done with the best intent.

  • No one's here to argue that.

  • But of course they break a section of the flag code

  • titled "Respect for the Flag,"

  • so by putting this on your uniform,

  • you are legally disrespecting the flag.

  • And what I find interesting

  • is that those NFL players kneeling during the anthem

  • and the people who would put Blue Lives Matters stickers on their car

  • are both on the opposite end of a very big issue,

  • but they're both breaking the exact same law,

  • a law that is 100 percent unenforceable.

  • In fact, it was Dread Scott's piece of art in 1989

  • that led the Supreme Court to rule that the flag code is just a guideline.

  • You cannot be prosecuted for breaking the flag code.

  • You cannot be forced to be patriotic.

  • So why, then, have all of these little laws around how we use our flag

  • if you can't enforce them?

  • And that's because a nation

  • is a fragile collective idea.

  • It only exists in our minds.

  • Can I see this? Thank you.