No flags for you

One of the reasons that the Frozen Garlic blog was silent so late into the election season this year is that it simply didn’t feel like there was an election in the Taipei area. I kept waiting for the flags to go up to signal the beginning of the election season, but there are still no flags in Taipei. There are no flags in New Taipei either. In my neighborhood, which is technically in Keelung City, only one candidate has put up flags. No flags, no election feeling for me. Last weekend I took a trip to Pingtung, and as soon as we got off the freeway we were engulfed in campaign flags. Aaahh, democracy! I felt so happy and warm. We drove back and stopped by Taichung, and, again, there were no campaign flags. What is going on?

It seems there is a concerted push against planting flags this year. One campaign office told me that the six direct municipalities have put together a no-flag policy. We got a leaflet in Keelung from a DPP candidate saying that she promised not to put up any flags this year and implying that this was part of a wider campaign. I haven’t been outside of the Taipei area much this election season, so I can’t say what things look like on the east coast, Changhua, Hsinchu, Chiayi, or most other areas. But as you can probably tell, I’m not happy about this development.

The “good people” in society have been complaining about campaign flags for years. Flags are supposed to be chaotic, dirty, and visual pollution. To this I reply, have you looked at a Taiwan streetscape recently? Between the cacophony of colorful business signs, the flags advertising mango ice cream at family mart, the epilepsy-inducing flashing LED lights at every betelnut stand, the huge neon (nowadays LED) billboard ads for TECO air conditioners, and the ubiquitous real estate ads plastered on every inch of bare concrete walls, Taiwan is hardly lacking in visual stimulation. I’m supposed to believe that those things are all part of the natural environment, but campaign flags are horrible visual pollution??

I suspect the campaign against campaign flags is rooted in distaste for democracy. I feel warm and fuzzy inside when I see the island festooned in its campaign clothes because I love election season. It reminds me that the country is exercising its fundamental right of self-governance by giving power to the people. Other people, I suspect, have quite different gut feelings about the election holiday season. There are many people who gravitate toward the idea that bureaucrats should run the show. Bureaucrats love to talk about unity and harmony; elections are the very essence of division and conflict. This sort of feeling is common not only in the mainlander elites but also in the Taiwanese elites who think that everything is better in Japan. (One of the things usually admired about Japan is how the colonial bureaucrats set up all the good infrastructure and systems that Taiwanese enjoy today.) Both groups often see politicians, especially local politicians, as corrupt, narrow-minded, and uncultured. Yet elections are precisely the time when these rough barbarians threaten the power of the wise, educated, selfless bureaucratic elite. I think this causes gut-level fear and disgust with democratic processes, which are by nature disorderly, emotional, unstructured, and aimed at communicating with the unwashed masses rather than commanding them from above. One reaction to an instinctive distaste for the messiness of the democratic process is to criticize it as ugly and excessive. A “good society” would not see so much chaos, sniff the media and government elites. Why not try to regulate it out of sight?

Wait, maybe the bureaucrats are really sincere. Maybe they really just don’t like flags on streets. That argument might hold water except for one thing. The government plants lots of flags on Taiwan city streets. Most major streets in Taipei (and other major cities) have flags up almost year round. They typically advertise some government-sponsored event. No, let me rephrase that. They typically advertise some event held in a government-owned venue. Thus we see flags for the Taipei book fair, a violin performance, a furniture exhibition, or a pop concert. How are these justifiable? The city government puts them up as a public service to educate the public about some upcoming public event. After all, if the people aren’t informed about a public event, how can they participate as a civic community in public life? It is important for the health of the collective community, after all, that they be able to attend public events and experience a sense of collective solidarity by doing things together. You know, like go to Lady Gaga concerts. (Yes, the Taipei city government put up flags all over the city advertising Lady Gaga. Obviously, those were public service announcements, not visual pollution. Fortunately, the Lady Gaga concert was well-attended, so Taiwan now enjoys a much stronger civic culture.) Campaign flags, on the other hand, are pure visual pollution. They are clearly not serving any important purpose such as informing the general public of an upcoming public event in which widespread public participation would make society stronger or create bonds of solidarity by sharing the experience of performing some public duty. Nope, just visual pollution.

(One other example. Last weekend the government put up a different set of flags in many locales all over the island. They were red, with some blue and a white star in the upper left corner. Those rows and rows of flags were serving the public interest and were definitely not visual pollution.)

I realize I’m going to lose this fight. I also understand it isn’t the end of the world. Democracy will manage to survive, and most people will still turn out to vote and figure out who to vote for. Still, I can’t help but feel that Taiwan is losing a bit of its unique flair and that democracy is a bit less festive without the cacophony of colors lining the streets in election season. Sigh.

11 Responses to “No flags for you”

  1. David Reid Says:

    I think there is a difference between the government putting up flags in specific places compared to the chaotic and often illegal planting of flags that happens during election campaigns. I would say it represents a change in values of the Taiwanese people. Whereas flags were once seen as important and vital signals of a candidates worthiness they are now seen simply as objects of waste. Also a lot of campaigning activity has now shifted in to the online space so displays in the real world are less relevant.

  2. Brido Says:

    “I think this causes gut-level fear and disgust with democratic processes, which are by nature disorderly, emotional, unstructured, and aimed at communicating with the unwashed masses rather than commanding them from above”

    I can think of another famous political figure who felt the same way. Perhaps what Taiwan needs is some sort of REVOLUTION in its political CULTURE to force the bureaucrats into accepting the LINE that the MASS of people want them to take?

  3. Kungwan Says:

    I read in an article somewhere that Taiwan’s elections had a carnivalesque quality to it. Candidates would partake in cosplay to humour their constituencies and grab headlines. Campaign rallies were like rock concerts with DJ’s, lights, and various entertainers. The ground shook with the synchronous chanting of the crowd that were bused in to fill the seats. The theatre of politics was very literal in Taiwan. None of it needed to make sense. What was at stake was public space, the airwaves, and the front page. Those were wild days! [sighs]

    Now every politician wants to appear middle class…

  4. Pierre Says:

    I remember seeing some news on TV a while back, during an election, and people were complaining about the flags like this one: https://frozengarlic.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/sam_5111.jpg?w=900&h=1200

    As you can see, there is plastic tip at the top of the flag, and because of the wind, the flag can rotate brutally from one direction to another.

    I’m not sure if one flag popped someone’s eye out already, or if people were afraid of that, but basically many people were angry about those flags.

    On contrary, the government posted flags you mention (to announce concerts and things like that) are hanged in specific locations which are dedicated and high enough so no one can get injured.

    So I would say it’s not a wave against democracy, just a way to keep everyone’s both eyes (cause you *do* need two eyes crossing those scooters and crazy buses-filled streets, don’t you?!)

  5. yt Says:

    I think it’s a safety and environmental issue more than anything else. The ones that scare me are the bunches in a patch of grass in the road dividers. They look like they’re all about to topple into the street and create a traffic hazard. I also don’t think the flags are recyclable.

    This article has a great picture as an example: http://udn.com/news/NATIONAL/NATS4/8953234.shtml

    The article I linked to says that flags will be allowed in New Taipei during the 15 days up to the election and has restrictions on flag sizes. I guess now the buffer period when polls cannot be released will now be time to look for campaign flags.

    One article I read stated that Taipei has banned campaign flags in public areas.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Look at the official explanation given by the New Taipei City government in the article you linked to. Flags are banned to 避免選舉旗幟亂象影響市容 “avoid the chaos of campaign flags influencing the city’s beauty.” They don’t talk about safety or recycling. If you want to talk about traffic safety or encourage recycling, campaign flags might not be the first place you should look.

      • yt Says:

        I didn’t mean that the cities were citing environmental and safety reasons for restricting the flags. I meant that I don’t like the flags because I personally think they’re a safety and environmental hazard.

  6. jsmyth Says:

    It may be that the KMT would prefer that there not be an election at all next month…

  7. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    PFP candidate put a flag on a stand right in front of my apartment door today.

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