The Danish Flag Controversy or the Relevance of Political Symbols

The correct use of the Danish flag

Political symbols are important for national identity, and of these the flag is perhaps most so. As many scholars of nationalism have observed, the flag is not just a colored piece of cloth. It is a piece of cloth loaded with meaning and with emotions. The flag visualizes the nation, it represents the nation both at special times (national ceremonies, sport competitions, graduation days, etc.) and during the everyday life. As a reminder of the omnipresence of the nation, of its reality, the flag raises strong feelings in the members of the community it represents: joy when it is put up for victories, sorrow when it reminds the group of tragedies or losses.

Of all the nations of Europe, the Danes have a special pride in their red and white flag. The Dannebrog is claimed to be the oldest flag in the world (officially appearing on the coat of arms of the of King Valdemar IV around 1340) and comes with a legend that endows it with an almost sacred quality (it was descended from the sky during the battle of Lyndanisse in 1219 to save the army of Valdemar II from an otherwise sure death at the hands of the heathens of what is today Estonia).

Not only is the Dannebrog a special flag, the Danes have also a special way to relate to it. Like elsewhere in Scandinavia, the national flag is part of the personal calendar, being raised at special times for the individual or the family (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc.). It also belongs to the country landscape, as almost every house has a flag pole. But the Danes do not stop here. For them, the use of the Dannebrog has been extended into the commercial arena, as a symbol of the “good life” – thus its ubiquitous presence on “made in Denmark” products (beer, cheese, ham) or on price tags of any products on a special sale. Because of its commercial use, the Danish flag is even more present in the every day life of the inhabitants of the country.

Given this mythologized history and type of flagging practice it comes as no surprise that any political discussion that include the national flag raises vivid debates. This is currently the case with the debate around a proposed change in the rules about the display of the flag. Summarized, the debate was started by the more liberal political parties (the Social-Liberals [Radikale Venstre] and the Liberal Alliance), who proposed a relaxation of the current flagging rules (dating since 1915). So far these rule prohibit the private display of other flags than the Dannebrog. The liberals wish to extend this right to other national flags, invoking the principle of having the liberty to do as one wishes on one’s private property. Easy to imagine the reaction of the nationalist Danish People’s Party (DF), for whom the flag is intrinsically connected with the essence of Danish national identity. The Conservatives came to the help of DF, supporting the exclusivity principle of flagging, with the Social Democrats also standing by the tradition. The Socialists (SF) and Unity List (Enhedslisten) are in favor of the liberal proposal.

As seen above, the issue of the flag effectively divides Danish politics in two, but outside the classical ideological lines. The positions are clearly marked in what has become a most watched video debate in the daily TV news magazine “Deadline” opposing the Conservative Rasmus Jarlov and the Liberal Ole Birk Olesen. The arguments are a reprise of the exchange taking place on Facebook, where Jarlov wrote

There is no control over the economy and the election promises. But then one can divert attention from these problems by going to war against the Danish culture. Now, the Radicals want to allow flagging with the Swaziland and the Iranian flag over the Danish country. The only original ideas we hear from the government parties appear to be this kind of culturally radical measures. The canon lists [n.a. lists with the essential readings in Danish literature] must be abolished. The Old Theater (Gammel Scene) disbanded. The Ministry of Church Matters may not wish Merry Christmas. And now Dannebrog is also attacked. I wonder if Liberal Alliance is backing this idea, just as they used to?

Like the leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjaersgaard, the Conservatives phrase the debate in terms of national values and national identities. To change the flagging rules is to abandon the quintessential expression of Danishness. The proposed change is nothing but a way to dilute the national identity, together with the other measures listed above. The accusation is clear: the liberals and the radicals are anti-national, a threat to the traditional values of the Danes and thus irresponsible and disloyal members of the community.

To this the reply of the Liberal Ole Birk Olesen is almost immediate. Olesen writes on his Facebook page

You are right. You cannot decide which flag will fly from my flag pole. Get your own garden and your own flag pole, hippie.

This last reply is to be understood as a hint to the fact that the Conservative Jarlov lives in an apartment in Copenhagen and not on the countryside in a villa, and thus he leads ” a bohemian life” to quote again one of Olesen’s declarations. Since the main argument of the Liberals is based on the idea of the respect of private property, and since Jarlov does not own a “proper” real estate, he is giving up on hs own the right to decide over which flag should be flagged.

How do the Danes feel about this proposal? According to an unscientific opinion poll on the website of the TV2 News, of the 4467 votes casted at the time when I write this, an overwhelming majority (84%) is against allowing other nations’ flags to be displayed. And when “Politiken”, left-leaning and one of the main dailiesĀ  in Denmark asks “should it be allowed to raise foreign flags in Denmark?” the opinions are divided almost evenly: of the 4685 votes, 45% are against and 51% for the preservation of the Dannebrog monopoly. The Politiken article also receives 77 comments, where both pro- and con arguments are being made.

How do you, readers of this post, feel about such a debate? Is it outdated in our supra- or post-national times? Or is it, on the contrary, a sign that we are not supra- or postnational yet?

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