Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flags and the politics of fantasy

Every now and then I stop at a shop window and gaze at a shirt, wondering whether it might be shapely enough to disguise the bulge in my belly, and perhaps give the illusion that I have muscles rather than flaccid man-breasts on my chest. Whenever I buy a shirt, though, my hopes are disappointed. Reality is no match for illusion.

I thought about my problems with shirts when I read the other day about proposals to give New Zealand and Australia new flags. Kiwi Republicans are convinced that the fondness of our sports fans for the silver fern reflects a desire to dump the current ensign, which cedes a quarter of its territory to the Union Jack, a flag that isn't even acceptable in large parts of the British motherland these days. For his part, Australian historian John Blaxland has redesigned his country's flag, replacing the Jack with a boomerang, and filling a large star with two hundred and fifty dots, each of which, apparently, represents a language spoken in Oz. On both sides of the Tasman, Republicans have long argued that a change of flag will help to consolidate a new national image, and ameliorate some of the problems created by colonialism and cultural cringe.

But a new flag can no more transform a nation that a new shirt could transform my torso. The economic and political inequality, racism, and cultural conservatism which are features of Australasian societies are the product of history, sociology, and economics. They can't blow away in the wind that puffs the chest of a new national flag. A flag can't feed poor kids, or pay steep tuition fees, or find anybody a job.
Because of the nobly quixotic intentions which motivate them, the designers of alternative flags tend to make a mess of things. They begin by wondering how they can best represent the diverse populations of Australasia, and the differing values and interests of those populations, and then try to squeeze symbols representing as many sectors of the population onto their banners. Blaxland's flag, with its dots that resemble termite bites, cheesy, banana-like boomerang, and gauche colour combinations, is a representative mess.

National flags exist not to express but to dissolve differences. A successful flag features a symbol or pattern which is simple and shapely enough to be immediately identifiable, and vague enough to sponsor a range of positive interpretations. The red sun of Japan's famously elegant ensign might symbolise that country's emperor, but it also represents, for many of its admirers, life, summer, authority, and - sitting as it does on a field of white - purity. Because it symbolises a landscape they all claim, the maple leaf can charm indigenous, Anglo-Saxon, and Quebecois Canadians.

One or two of the alternative flags invented by New Zealanders avoid an over-prescriptive clutter. The silver fern might seem a suitably simple and open symbol, but the black field behind it runs the risk of connoting mourning, piracy, Al Qaeda, and anarchism. The fern itself becomes, at a certain distance from the flagpole, a white feather, which many cultures consider a symbol of cowardice.
The flag proposed by Dick Frizzell is better, because it preserves what was effective in the old banner, while discarding the fusty Union Jack. Frizzell has centred the southern cross, and added red strips to his banner. Best of all, perhaps, Frizzell has retained the deep blue which dominates the official New Zealand flag.

With its combination of depth and brightness, and its association with those two ancient symbols of infinity, the sea and the sky, blue can be a heady colour. The visionary canvases of Yves Klein, and the final film of Derek Jarman, which offered audiences an unrelentingly blue screen, are evidence of the effect the colour has had on artists. The red strips on Frizzell's flag reinforce its illusion of depth: they might be the frame of a window through which we are staring at an endless sky on a January evening. The blue field of our flag communicates a feeling of space and possibility which, however counterfeit, resonates with the people of a sparsely populated colony at the edge of the world.

But the aesthetic success of Dick Frizzell's banner does not score it political points. Four stars on a lustrous blue background tell us little about twenty-first century New Zealand, with its myriad ethnic and religious groups, its yawning class divisions, and its sourly competitive islands and regions. The adoption of Frizzell's flag would do nothing to address, let alone solve, the problems of this country. Like me when I gaze through a shop window, the Republican movement is guilty of wishful thinking.

Flag design becomes more fun, and perhaps also more enlightening, when it focuses not on the propaganda needs of states but on iconoclastic visions. The British Republican flag was designed in the 1830s, when the Chartist movement threatened to bring the democratic spirit of the French revolution to cities like London and Manchester, and was apparently flown for the last time from a handful of windows during the silver jubilee of of George V in 1935.
To look at this flag, with its echoes of the banners of republican states, is to imagine a Britain where the Windsors met the same sort of fate as the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, where continental nations like France and Italy are seen as siblings rather than as inscrutable aliens, where May Day is a public holiday, where cafes have taken the place of ale houses, and where the social sciences and philosophy enjoy as much esteem as natural history.
The Martian tricolour is another exercise in speculation, a glimpse of what its creators believe to be the 'future history' of the Red Planet. Its red panel represents the colours of the arid and airless plains and mountains that presently cover our nearest neighbour, but its blue and green denote the meadows, lakes and rivers which might be created the sort of experiment in 'terraforming' that would-be colonists advocate. Unfortunately, Armenian nationalists seem to have first claim to the Martian ensign.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer the Silver fern on black, and I bet most NZers would choose that too. There's already an established connection with it, and neither favours one section of society over another.

2:08 pm  
Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

I'm patron of the Republican movement of ANZ.
I dont like the fern on a black field-ferns have connatations of death in Maoridom, as much as black can signify mourning in other cultures

Besides, it's an ugly flag.

2:29 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

I have always been pretty agnostic on flag changing, being somewhat inately conservative despite lashings of uni-bred progressivism :-) however if I had to choose, it would be Hundterwasser's green wave/koru... A flag of the forest and sea by an outsider and an immigrant who made a cOnscious decision to live here, chose the cradle of the nation to rest his head, and is best known in these parts for his magnificent shitter. The flag is hard to hate, surely a key factor when Jacks and stars and blacks, reds, white and blues are so tied up with our shared cultural and historic baggage.

7:04 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The fact that "most New Zealanders" would choose a particular flag is argument against such a flag. We should burn all flags.

We could be identified as the country or place with no flag and no identity, as surely there is no New Zealand or Aotearoa?

The idea of such a place is ridiculous.

11:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I do like the Maori flag but it can only be a banner in my non-New Zealand.

I can never remember such flags as the French, German or the Italian, they all seem the same to me.

I have no interest in nationalism. I hate New Zealand. Flags are stupid. In fact flags are rags for morons.

11:31 pm  
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Anonymous Higgs Boatswain said...

What's wrong with the flag of the Confederation of Northern Chiefs? It was New Zealand's first flag - it has a real history, unlike the made-up marketing icons designed by advertising gurus (and that includes the bloody silver fern). It's attractive, distinctive, and it carries its own clear set of bicultural values. Moreover, many institutions - such as the Museum of Wellington - already fly it.

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