Sunday, February 8, 2009

Keep The Oregon State Flag

An idea that is expensive, unnecessary and an insult to a proud and important history.

Oregon's 150th birthday is this Valentine's Day, February 14th. Last October, admittedly before the financial crisis in the state and in the nation was acknowledged as the worst since the Great Depression, the Oregonian came up with the idea that, as a birthday gift to ourselves, we Oregonians should re-design our State Flag because, among other things, (1) the state seal looks like "a bunch of others"; 2) it is expensive to produce and heavy because it sports a design on both sides; (3) the beaver on the reverse side resembles "a blob of butterscotch pudding"; and (4) altogether the flag doesn't represent the essence of Oregon. Judge for yourself:

The Oregonian says a change wouldn’t cost much because the thousands of state flags that are displayed in offices like my own and fly from state buildings would be replaced only when they wear out. The one in my office is over 50 years old and shows no signs of wear at all, so it could be the next sesquicenntenial before Oregon actually has one state flag.

The editors held a contest. There were many submissions, many from schoolkids who got their first lesson in civics. They were admittedly fun to look at. The thousands were narrowed to ten finalists, and finally, the winner: None of the above. In other words: The current flag will do just fine, thanks. In second place:

It's the blob of butterscotch, which designer R.C. Gray of West Linn retained to honor -- yes, you guessed it -- the current flag.

I'm going to leave aside the pedestrian issue of money -- not so easy to leave aside when, among other essential services on the chopping block, home care is slated to be taken away from dependent seniors. My real gripe is with the appalling lack of understanding of our flag’s symbolism.

When I attended grade school in Eugene, we were taught the state flower -- Mahonia, the Oregon grape -- and the state song, “Oregon, My Oregon”:
Land of the Empire Builders, Land of the Golden West;
Conquered and held by free men, Fairest and the best.
On-ward and upward ever, Forward and on, and on;
Hail to thee, Land of the Heroes, My Oregon.
Land of the rose and sunshine, Land of the summer's breeze;
Laden with health and vigor, Fresh from the western seas.
Blest by the blood of martyrs, Land of the setting sun;
Hail to thee, Land of Promise, My Oregon.

And we were taught the meaning of the symbols on the state flag. Here's the official description of the state seal:
. . . an escutcheon, supported by 33 stars [the number of states in 1859], and divided by an ordinary, with the inscription, "The Union." In chief mountains, an elk with branching antlers, a wagon, the Pacific Ocean, on which there are a British man-of-war departing and an American steamer arriving. The second quartering with a sheaf, plow and a pickax. Crest The American eagle. Legend - State of Oregon, 1859.
 As a resident of Astoria it's interesting to me that much of the state's seal reflects important events at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. The British Man-of-War, sails unfurled, is leaving Fort George (first and afterwards Astoria) after President Polk had negotiated the full transfer of the Oregon Territory from Britain in 1846. The American frigate, sails furled, is entering the harbor as the sun sets on the British Empire, symbolizing a new day for Oregon.

The flag also sports symbols for the wheat fields of eastern Oregon and the wagon trains of the Oregon Trail.

Perhaps most importantly, the seal includes the the words “The Union.” Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859. What was happening in America then?

Only the greatest debate in American history: Whether America would be a slave nation or a free nation. Oregon chose the motto “The Union” to make forever clear that it stood with the anti-slavery forces and against the idea of a nation divided. The notion carries forward to the present day, and has particular poignance with the recent election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

Many buildings in our nation's capitol display all the flags of our united states. The Oregon flag is easy to spot. It has our name on it. Yes, there are some graphically hip flags like Arizona and New Mexico;the Mississippi and Alabama flags are controversial because they have yet to be purged of the symbols of slavery.

Was Oregon’s history so noble? No. The Klan held much sway for many decades, and Native Americans, along with Americans of Chinese, African and Japanese descent, were treated abominably.

But, at a critical moment in Oregon history, Oregonians lined up with the angels of the nation’s better nature. So, as the OSU Admissions blog says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Keep the Flag. Don't bother our legislators, who surely have more important work, with this falderal.