Trend and tradition

20:07, Feb 23 2014

When I was 13, I got my own room, and I really wanted to paint it green. And when I say wanted green, I mean GREEN. My favoured shade of the colour was best likened to a granny smith apple, or the lurid hue adorning the cans of a well-known energy drink. 

My parents rejected my master plan. They possessed a keen understanding of the fickle nature of teenage opinion, and probably a clear eye to the resale value of our house. I was crushed, in the charmingly unhinged way that only a teenager can be.

But two years later, I remembered the episode and laughed, and cringed. It was an early lesson about the perspective of hindsight in matters of taste.

These memories have come to mind recently, as the debate around New Zealand's flag bubbled to the surface again. Much of the conversation around changing our flag stems from a central thought: that the flag we have does not match or properly express the identity we have as a nation today.

To that I say: why does that matter? What makes us think that our generation is the best suited to defining New Zealand's identity in this way? Do our opinions matter more in the course of New Zealand history than our forebears, or our descendants?

Do we believe that we've reached the high water mark of cultural awareness-or indeed integration-that allows us to make a claim on a new identity? Have we arrived at the zenith of "New Zealandness," emboldening 
us to refresh with a new symbol? Or as John Key likes to call it, a new "brand?"


This word "brand" worries me. Products have brands. Companies have brands. Items, things, or organisations, stickered with logos, mottos, pricetags. All are tested in the marketplace for maximum profitability, and altered as soon as focus groups say that there's something they want more.

Nations and people have identities. Identities shaped by relationships, history, community, shared experience, tradition, and a care for what the future holds. And it is this sense of tradition and connection to our history-the people and events that made the New Zealand that we have inherited-that I think we 
ignore when we too eagerly swap our identity for our brand.

The poet G.K. Chesterton put it like this: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about." 

I am not suggesting that there is no way or time that our flag should ever be changed. Our Commonwealth cousins in Canada and South Africa have shown that it can be done well. What I do hope is that we have humility about our place in New Zealand history, and a gratitude for the nation and traditions 
entrusted to us by previous generations.

Let us act cautiously before replacing tradition with trend.

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