03 February 2014

'British' flags?

I have two other posts that I want to write, but reading this on The Guardian's web site stimulated me to start here. (The other two are also spun from Guardian links, largely because it hasn't retired behind a paywall yet.) Flags generate a lot of emotion, because they are understood as a coded message of community or oppression. The question, from a cultural historian's perspective, is whether they represent The Past, in J H Plumb's interpretation, or whether their tendency to appropriation and use in fashion (google 'union jack underwear' or 'soviet flag fashion' for examples) make them mutable symbols of a common heritage.* In this case, a suggestion to replace New Zealand's traditional 'blue ensign' (a common design for flags of constituent lands of the British Empire) with a silver fern on a black field has been made. On the one side, there is a flag that encapsulates the New Zealand 'past' from the settlement of the New Zealand Wars to the present. On the other, a flag that represents New Zealand's cultural signature to the rest of the world, sporting prowess on the rugby pitch. (Although some of us might be fond of New Zealand wine even moreso.) I guess there are some youngsters out there who might even think it has something to do with a successful video game franchise. Plumb interpreted The Past as a kind of dead hand on the body politic, one that scientific history would lift away to allow a more mature society with no need of a paternalistic elite to evolve naturally. In this he reflected the era in which his book was written, the Swinging Sixties which promised to modernise nineteenth-century British institutions. Of course, Plumb's work has become a tool to be used in another, somewhat different context. In a discussion of Plumb's work on History News Network, one finds the following statements:
Instead of Plumb’s vision, however, we have the ascendancy of a past that is audacious in its confrontation with history. The dogmatic Christian worldview that he believed was discredited by the philosophes and by later scholarly and scientific inquiry is now passed off as being not only determinative for religious believers but also for the nature and destiny of the entire nation....The future envisioned by the founders was not pluralistic, not dynamic, and certainly not complex: it was dogmatically Christian
In this, we see two 'pasts' clashing. There is the unwelcome 'Christian' past that the author objects to, and the supposedly pluralistic vision of the founders. I would suggest that the founders were rather more Christian, and rather less pluralistic, than the author implies in this article. Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color makes a point at the start of highlighting the 1790 naturalisation law that envisages an America of 'free white persons'. Think about that 1790 context: the only substantial reservoir of 'free white persons' who might immigrate to the United States was the overwhelmingly Christian Europe. On the basis of that fact, one could equally argue that the Founders in practical terms envisaged a country with a substantially Christian European outlook. This outlook was changed because Americans, in practising their citizenship, wanted it to be changed. But I would add a further note, which is that while Plumb's vision may not apply in the United States, it is in rude health in the rest of the Anglosphere, because there is no conflict of different The Pasts. And so back to flags. It may be that the New Zealand flag no longer reflects a New Zealand of the future, and the time has come to change it. But before that decision is taken, remember that there were many New Zealanders in two world wars who fought and died under that old flag, and it was that common experience that remains a vital part of New Zealand's past, attaching it to a broader community that shares substantial settlement from the British Isles, some experience of monarchical government and a system of government that drew on Westminster as a model. All of the countries to which this applies have been moving away, since 1973 if not earlier, from a British heritage and towards an Americanised future. The United States was the first to break with the Union Flag as a pattern, and it took almost two hundred years before Canada took a similar step. New Zealand may be next on the cab rank, but as the prime minister points out in the article, is this really such an important issue? Does one really want to go down the American road, where different The Pasts make civic life a miserable arena in which government itself becomes a dirty word and Christian religion a tool of division? _____________ *Of course, the real answer is 'both'.

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