MIKE PESCA: For 10 months and especially this past Thursday we've seen the stars and stripes flapping on every flagpole from Philadelphia to Fresno. It may then surprise you to know that Old Glory rates only a C plus from flag critic Josh Parsons. Parsons is a post doctoral fellow in philosophy at Saint Andrew's College in Scotland. So how does that make him an expert? It doesn't. But in addition to being a post doctoral fellow, he's a flag-loving fellow to the extent that he has awarded every flag of the world a letter grade and posted it on his very detailed web site. Josh Parsons, welcome to OTM.
JOSH PARSONS: Thanks.
MIKE PESCA: Could you go through some of the hard and fast rules you employ?
JOSH PARSONS: One of the general rules is not putting writing on flags. Some flags have the whole name of the country on the flag. I don't like maps of the country either -- for basically the same reason. The general rule is not putting representational pictures on flags. A lot of people put pictures of animals like lions and sheep and things, but I was very struck by the number of flags that have pictures of weapons on them!
MIKE PESCA: And some flags, like Sri Lanka, have pictures of animals holding a weapon.
JOSH PARSONS: That's true.
MIKE PESCA: What about stars?
JOSH PARSONS:Yes, well I like stars, but a lot of people like to put stars on flags, and some people have the attitude that if one is good, two must be better and 50 must be just right!
MIKE PESCA: So I see, yeah, you're pretty consistent. I see you give an A grade to many flags with just one star.
JOSH PARSONS: Yeah.
MIKE PESCA: North Korea, Cuba, Turkey, Israel of course has the Star of David--
JOSH PARSONS: Yep.
MIKE PESCA: -- Somalia, Vietnam and Pakistan has a crescent moon and a star. All get A's.
JOSH PARSONS:Yes. One thing I like about the flag I ranked best, the Gambia, was it represents something about the history and the geography of the country without being of course a map. [LAUGHS] It's a bit like a tricolor. It's got a-- a blue line in the middle and then above that a red part and below a green part. What it represents is the River Gambia which is what most of the Gambia is.
MIKE PESCA:So in order for you to appreciate that enough to give it your only A plus, you had to know a little bit about Gambia. But some of these flags that you've failed -- do you know enough about the countries to sufficiently give an adequate grade?
JOSH PARSONS: I did want to just grade the flags on their aesthetic merits because it would be a bit hard to go in for historical importance. I think in the case of the Gambia it's already a beautiful flag, and it's also hooked up with the geography of the country.
MIKE PESCA:Maybe this inclination, though laudable, led you to give unfair grades to countries like Swaziland because while it's true that they do have weapons, when you take into their--account their history of being entirely engulfed by South Africa, maybe you could read that defiance as brave and inspiring.
JOSH PARSONS: That's true, and-- I was initially reluctant to mark down those countries for having weapons on their flags, but I felt that I had to in all consistency.
MIKE PESCA: Did you get much international reaction, even indignation over your letter grades?
JOSH PARSONS: Oh, yes, I certainly do. I get a lot of e-mails.
MIKE PESCA: Who objects the most?
JOSH PARSONS: I'm afraid to say people from the U.S.
MIKE PESCA:[LAUGHS] Let me anticipate a letter that we're sure to get. Dear On the Media, you've ruined my July 4th weekend. In this post 9/11 world do we really need these supposedly clever jibes about the design of a flag being too busy? Our flag means a lot more than 13 stripes and 50 stars, and you and your guest would do well to remember that people have fought and died for the principle it stands for. What do you say to that letter writer?
JOSH PARSONS: People have written me letters like that, and I think that being able to laugh at the symbol of a country in a friendly way is an important way of kind of combatting the excesses of nationalism.
MIKE PESCA:I guess no one's ever thought to put a big picture of their leader on a flag. I could see Mobutu Sese Seko trying something like that. [LAUGHTER] You probably wouldn't like that, would you?
JOSH PARSONS: No, I, I definitely wouldn't like that. Actually I wonder about who designed Libya's flag. I think Qaddafi would probably be into putting pictures of himself on the flag if he could.
MIKE PESCA:Well it's interesting that you bring up Libya, because I would have failed Libya, because Libya's flag is simply a sea of green. But you gave it a B.
JOSH PARSONS: I can understand why you'd fail it. One feels that the designers of Libya's flag really weren't trying.
MIKE PESCA: I'd at least give it an incomplete.
JOSH PARSONS: Mmmmmmm. Yes. But they've certainly gone for simplicity, and they've also done something that no one else has dared to do, and I think they deserve to be rewarded for thinking of doing that when it's really something that's so obvious -- to have a flag that's just one color.
MIKE PESCA: You didn't evaluate the UN flag itself --light blue - has a map - that's points off -what do you think you'd give it?
JOSH PARSONS: It has a map on it, does it?
MIKE PESCA: Yeah, it has a map of the whole world.
JOSH PARSONS: Yeah. I don't think it would do well. Though it's kind of hard to know what the UN would put on a flag.
MIKE PESCA: Maybe they could counterintuitively put a picture of Mobutu Sese Seko!
JOSH PARSONS: Yes! That's a possibility.
MIKE PESCA: Josh, thanks very much.
JOSH PARSONS: Thank you!
MIKE PESCA:Josh Parsons is a post doctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Saint Andrew's. Because of its complex address his web site is best found via the link provided by onthemedia.org.
"The Star Spangled Banner"
by Bela Fleck