This referendum is a conundrum. The existing flag is a colonial statement: the United Kingdom (Ireland, Scotland and England – not all that united in fact, with Ireland and Scotland both having suffered from English imperialism), sits in the blue Pacific with the characterising Southern Cross in the sky above. There’s no sign of the natives – they were being conquered. It was cobbled together for the Boer War, when colonial New Zealanders went to join the imperialist mother country in its fight again the Dutch (Afrikaner) imperialists.
And then, of course, in what is considered the founding moment of our nationhood, colonial New Zealanders died under the flag while joining the mother country’s fight against the Germans, Turks and whoever else, in what was a battle between national capitalists for colonial spoils (the colonies providing resources, markets and military bases). Some Maori decided to join in this madness, both to celebrate their warrior tradition and to prove themselves equal citizens.
Various sports teams won or lost, under the flag, and then we had WWII, resulting from the mess created by WWI, and once again, we (including Maori) joined the mother country. But this time, the coming imperial power, the US, entered the scene.
Edmund Hilary conquered Everest, some more sporting feats, and the colonial flag had acquired a history of representing a society which prided itself (wrongly) on being racially inclusive and (sometimes rightly) socially advanced. The Vietnam War, when we joined the new imperial master, saw some flag burning and then the UK headed toward Europe, cutting the previous close economic ties with the colonies. The Maori renaissance and the treaty claim process began, we became immersed in the Pacific Basin economically, the postmodern diversification of society occurred and the society which the flag represented has become frayed and faded.
But, as well, the very concept of nation and nationalism has become frayed and faded. With neoliberalism, characterised by free trade, globalised production and investment, the downgrading of national governance, and a mobile population, the nation becomes a cynical concept, something to be returned to when the multinational chips are down and you need a bale out. The TPPA seems the last nail in the coffin, although there are undoubtedly more nails to come. This cynicism is accompanied by ever louder spectacles involving ‘national’ sports teams (largely made up of mercenaries), world cups for this and that; national arts providers accompanying trade missions and so on.
The old flag is an archaism in this environment, an embarrassing nostalgia; so pragmatist and/or cynic, John Key, decides we should have a flag which represents – the above? And which also has some continuity with the original? In an age where history is not only bunk but has come to an end?
While I would like a flag which represents the complex passage of the two peoples intertwining (and I still believe we can feel proud of the treaty settlement process, of kura kaupapa, of Maori television and radio and so on – despite the failures of present and historical justice), the problem has been one of how to design such an image. Sadly, it has been a corporate process, a process of market research, so that the design on offer has the emptiness of the corporate logo, it has the shallowness of the globalised product, it lacks aroha or wairua.
It could be argued that it might acquire resonance as events get attached to it, but I doubt it. Wars are fought by mercenaries and drones nowadays. Sporting events are media spectacles. There were some beautiful designs submitted, but they didn’t make the cut (and for some reason the cut was made by a secretive committee) because they had the specialness of the art object.
A further contradiction: if the new design were chosen, the old flag will begin to have the status of the confederate flag in the US. People will stubbornly fly it because it symbolises an old social order (the town of Reefton suddenly had a rash of flag flying), and this will mean different things to different people. I would suspect even some Maori would fly it.
So, a dilemma, with no solution except to not vote. And that in itself is a dilemma; and why political indifference and disenchantment grow.