WHEN THE STATE OF GEORGIA hoisted a new flag over the capitol in Atlanta last month, it illustrated once again that many people in that deep South state have a powerful attachment to a symbol most Americans regard with indifference or disdain: a state flag. In most places, this item is the moral equivalent of the vice presidency, being insignificant, largely useless, and deservedly ignored. To find citizens passionately debating the design and purpose of their state flag is like seeing a huge rally for a sewer commission candidate.
The newest model is notable mainly because it omits any facsimile of the old Confederate battle flag. Georgians, who are fickle about these things, have had several flags. In 1956, they adopted one with the obvious purpose of giving the bird to the nascent civil rights movement by harking back to slavery and secession. The familiar blue, star-spangled St. Andrew's cross on a red field took up a good two-thirds of the space. In recent years, there have been many demands to junk that flag, and two years ago, the legislature approved a replacement, which shrank the old emblem to near invisibility.
Some people objected because the Confederate emblem was so tiny, some because it was included at all, and some simply because the flag was drab and undistinguished. Widely likened to a Denny's place mat, it was voted the worst in the nation by a group of flag experts called the North American Vexillological Association. The 2001 banner was so unpopular it contributed to last year's defeat of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes by Republican Sonny Perdue, who promised to let his constituents vote on whether to restore the Lester Maddox-era flag. In a compromise, they'll get to choose between the 2003 and 2001 flags, with the more controversial version no longer in play.
But if Georgia has discarded the nation's homeliest banner, there are plenty of solid claimants to the title. Maybe one reason Americans love Old Glory so much is that it has so little domestic competition. Most state flags are what you'd expect if you asked a committee of accountants to come up with a design and gave them half an hour to do it.
Not much is required of a decent flag. These emblems were originally meant to be easily recognizable even under challenging viewing conditions--at a distance, through the smoke of battle, amid other banners. So several obvious principles ought to govern. A flag needs a simple, clear pattern: A busy, ornate flag makes about as much sense as a subtle windowpane pattern on a football jersey. It helps to have bright colors--mauve and sage really don't do the job. A flag should be at least slightly distinctive, making it easier to remember. For extra credit, it ought to be meaningful in some way. Old Glory, for example, has a star for each state and a stripe for each of the original 13 states. The British Union Jack combines the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, representing England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Canadian maple leaf flag honors a beloved tree, as well as the country's vast swaths of wilderness. Japan's red disc pays homage to the myth of the emperor as the descendant of the sun goddess. Israel has the Star of David. France's tricolor originated during, and pays homage to, the Revolution. All are handsome and dignified. Nobody, seeing one of these flags, would say: Uh, whose is that?
The typical state flag, by contrast, is a study in confusion or cliché. In most cases, it appears, the designers made a list of all the attributes a flag should have and then chucked it out the window. Instead of striving for simplicity, many of them contain a flea market of images. Several have mottos that can be read only close-up, which is fine for flagpole sitters but useless to anyone else. Not that anyone else is to be pitied for missing Iowa's verbose motto, "Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain" or Massachusetts's "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem," which is not only wordy but unintelligible to 99 percent of the population. (It means "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.")
States that have little else in common somehow managed to show up at the ball wearing the same dress--most commonly, a blue rectangle with indecipherable doodling in the center. Connecticut's resembles Idaho's, which could pass for Kentucky's, which is a reasonable facsimile of Michigan's, which was cloned from Virginia's. Telling these monochromatic flags apart is a task as challenging as categorizing beetles, requiring years of training. Even the most dedicated student of flags would have trouble distinguishing New Hampshire from Nebraska at 50 paces. But given what they and most other state flags have to offer the discerning viewer, why would anyone bother?