Flagging enthusiasm for our national symbol

200Px-Cronulla Riots 1
I give up. Victory is yours, bogans draped in Australian flags. I watched you pissedly staggering all over the city on Australia Day like so many wobby Pauline Hansons, wearing the flag like a redneck superhero’s cape. You love the flag so much, you can keep it. The rest of us, who don’t particularly give a stuff about it and find patriotism faintly embarrassing, will move onto something else when we need a national symbol. You can make the current design your Aussie Confederate Flag, and proudly wave it as you shout “We grew here, and we flew here” at harmless migrants, ignoring the obvious point that your parents almost certainly migrated here a short while ago as well. After all, It’s a colonial flag, so what better match for colonial-era attitudes?

I shouldn’t conflate the two issues, though. I really dislike the current flag’s design, but far more than that, I dislike excessive patriotism, especially in the shape of flag-draping. In particular, we don’t need incidents like the one in Adelaide on Australia Day. And while John Howard says it isn’t the flag’s fault, because it doesn’t have arms, let’s just say it’s implicated.

The Big Day Out issue was ridiculous both in the initial action and the frenzied reaction, and let’s hope the organisers have learnt a thing or two about reverse psychology. But in case anyone’s organising a major music festival and wants to stop assorted bogans and rednecks draping themselves in the Australian flag at it, here’s a helpful tip. Under no circumstances ban – or even “discourage” – people from bringing it. It’s like a red rag to a bull. Like Fred Nile salivating over the prospect of interrupting Mardi Gras, it provides perfect fodder for those people who love to get upset about “political correctness gone mad” and suchlike. Worse still, it gives shrill Tele headline writers and State politicians the perfect grist for their populism.

I do see their point, though. They didn’t want another Cronulla – or another Big Day Out 2006. And who can blame them? They were so concerned that they even moved the day. As our primary teachers used to say, it only takes a few to spoil it for everyone.

There is one place where flags don’t seem a potential exhibition of bigotry, though, and that’s at international sporting matches. I went to the World Cup match where the Socceroos took on Croatia, and every single Croatian supporter was absolutely draped in red-and-white chequerboard gear. We needed to match them, and in that context, the guys with gold jerseys who were wearing flags as capes didn’t seem particularly obnoxious. After the match, the two teams’ supporters mixed in the main street of Stuttgart, shaking hands and congratulating one another in the most sporting of spirits. I was genuinely surprised how friendly the atmosphere was, even though both the riot police and large quantities of delicious wheat beer were a constant presence. There’s no distasteful ambiguity if you’re just supporting your national team.

But even in sport, flags can be problematic. The English football team I support, Arsenal, has banned all national flags from home games because of tensions over Turkish Cypriot flags, and also because away fans have been holding up English flags as a means of critiquing Arsenal’s multinational composition, and the club finds that highly offensive. Their view, which I agree with, is that national flags should only be used in association with national teams, and that otherwise the symbolism can upset other spectators and cause problems.

What’s more, neither of our traditional sporting colours is found on our flag, because red, white and blue have too many other meanings – so the use of the national flag in sport shouldn’t strictly be necessary. The boxing kangaroo’s probably a better option. And it’s always struck me as odd to compete against England in, say, the Ashes by waving a piece of cloth that has the Union Jack in a dominant position.

Let me be clear – I don’t advocate bans except when you have genuinely threatening potential flashpoints. Rather, I’d suggest that those of us who wish to harmlessly express our patriotism choose not use the flag to do it, because it now has too many unfortunate associations. Every nationalist hate group in the world venerates their national flag, and frankly, that’s spoiled it for the rest of us. The danger is that it becomes a different kind of competition – of Australianness, of asserting that the bearers are “real Aussies” and others aren’t.

If we want to promote the better kind of Australian values, of relaxed tolerance and inclusion, then we should leave our flag to the redneck elements who are evidently so keen to claim it. And when we absolutely need a flag, let’s find a new one that’s free of emotive British (in other words, white) symbols.

Dominic Knight

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