May 11, 2004

Bureaucratic symbolism

Posted by shonk at 12:02 AM in Politics | TrackBack

Washington, DC flag

If you’ve ever been in Washington, DC, as I was this past weekend, you’ve no doubt seen this symbol on all the license plates and street signs in town. It’s the official flag of Washington, DC, and, given that it’s a relatively simple yet distinctive design, I suppose it was only natural that the public works department down there decided to plaster it all over public spaces.

Nonetheless, this particular design has always struck me as being just a little bit odd. You see, if you know anything about the Mayan numeral system (scroll down a bit for the relevant synopsis), you’ll immediately notice that this symbol could easily be used in that system to represent the number 13. In fact, as someone with a more than passing familiarity with the vagaries of Mayan mathematics, it was pretty striking to see the number 13 plastered all over the city the first time I visited DC last summer, especially given the well-known superstitions concerning this particular number harbored by a surprisingly large percentage of the population. We omit 13th floors from tall buildings, but don’t bat an eye to see it on every street corner in the nation’s capital. In fact, if you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you might read into this a suggestion of the 13 Satanic Bloodlines or something equally sinister.

Of course, the actual explanation is somewhat more innocuous (or more subtly menacing, I suppose, if you’re of the conspiracy bent). The flag is the product of a 1938 contest intended “to procure a design for a distinctive flag for the District of Columbia.” The winning design was submitted by Charles A.R. Dunn, who was impressed by the Maryland flag but had little use for flags with seals (presumably he didn’t care much for the Virginia flag). Dunn drew his inspiration from the Washington family coat of arms, which apparently derives from George Washington’s Norman ancestors (though it seems unlikely that this same source was also the inspiration for the more famous Stars and Stripes, 19th century theorists notwithstanding). The “argent, two bar and in chief three mullets gules”, the official description of the Washington coat of arms, was apparently intended to signify the following:

Endurance to achieve Purification. Winning one’s spurs and becoming a knight, a member of the Peerage. As a member of the peerage the knight can sit in Judgement because he himself is considered to be Pure.

Actually, come to think of it, even if you’re not of the tinfoil-hat persuasion, maybe you should see the pervasive use of this symbol in the nation’s capital as being a bit sinister. Washington policymakers are already notorious for their superiority complexes without the necessity of constant subconscious reinforcement by way of ubiquitous peerage symbolism. The last thing we need is more bureaucrats thinking themselves pure and therefore worthy to sit in judgment of the rest of us.


Actually, I myself like the irony of red stars rising on the symbol of our nation's capital. It's a broad irony, I know, but we can still enjoy it. We haven't been completely brainwashed by Ann Coulter yet, right?

Posted by: Curt at May 12, 2004 09:47 PM