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.