The role of the flag

Last updated 14:18 17/10/2012

I like to play this game with myself sometimes if I'm waiting downtown in a major American city, where I try to count every American flag in sight.

It's not uncommon that if I really focus my gaze there will be more than a couple of dozen flags embedded in my view. Certain cities prompt different levels of flag saturation. The ever so militaristic and Republican San Diego is flag heavy, while the more liberal and patriotism-suspicious San Francisco is more low key.  

This would be a much more difficult game to play at home. But then in New Zealand and America, the flag plays very different roles in our societies.

USFlagIn the 2008 American presidential election campaign, (maybe-soon-to-be-former-president) Barack Obama initially refused to wear an American flag lapel pin. He said that wearing it had become a lazy symbol of patriotism, and he would show his love for his country through communicating his ideas to the nation. Very quickly journalists were commenting on Barack Obama's "patriotism problem". The lapel pin was eventually reinstated.    

John Key runs into a lot of thorny problems as New Zealand's prime minister (see for instance, Kim Dotcom, massive security leaks), but a "patriotism problem" is not going to be an issue for him. We don't look at our leaders in those terms.

Americans literally pledge allegiance to their flag. It is a symbol of which they are actively loyal to. It means something to them. The country drips in red, white and blue on July 4th... and flag day... and Memorial Day...  and President's Day... and Veteran's Day...

There's even a standard written protocol for folding the flag.

People fly the American flag outside of their family homes in the United States. Again, this is something that is done with considerably higher regularity in small towns and red states, but it is still an entirely understandable and acceptable act anywhere. I suspect, although I have no hard data to confirm this assertion, that such an act in New Zealand would be met with clucks and eye rolls.

For the most part, these differences derive from the contrasting cultural perceptions of national pride in New Zealand and America.

Unadulterated adoration of New Zealand and recognition of its global superiority (thankfully) plays no role in our political discourse. We are a country, one of hundreds, a pretty great one, and we do very, very well for ourselves stowed away on small islands at the end of the world.

Only in America could Barack Obama's attempts at diplomacy and trying to find middle ground between the US and its allies and adversaries, be translated as him "apologising for America".

Obama's critics accuse him of thinking that America is just another country, rather than the greatest country of earth.

NZFlagOur flag represents "New Zealand"... period. The American flag represents "valiant America, the greatest nation on earth."       

Part of this difference is because America is a lot bigger than New Zealand. Part of it is because as a nation we're more suspicious of patriotism.

(I'm reminded of that great Chuck Klosterman hypothetic in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: he sent an email to all of his friends saying they could date one of two people, someone who was smart and attractive, or someone who was smart, attractive and patriotic. Everyone chose the person who was only smart and attractive.)

Of course, what I'm debating here is only the inferred meaning of the New Zealand and American flags.

The American flag itself is a quite literal map of the wider country at large. It has 13 stripes, representing the 13 original colonies of America, and 50 stars in the upper left hand corner of the flag, one for every state in the union. The Union Jack was excised from the flag along with the British themselves at the end of the 1700s.

If an American doesn't revere the flag, they can at least agree upon it.

The New Zealand flag is not a symbol of consensus. Different groups have been agitating for it to be changed for decades now. I'm quite fond of the flag, in the sense that I enjoy picking it out of a line-up of flags when I'm abroad, and giving it a little nod of respect. It's a similar depth of feeling solicited from me as when New Zealanders make the news in America.

The New Zealand flag prompts a response in me because it's a placeholder for New Zealand itself, not because of the images on it. It shows the Union Jack, and the Southern Cross, set to a blue background. It has no literal effect on me, because I don't identify with the British and I'm not good with astronomy.

But I'm not sure changing the flag would promote a more rabid, more American, sense of national identification with it.

I'm ambivalent to a change of flag for a few reasons: because deep down a flag is what it is, and nothing more, and when something has been in place for 100 years it has its own resonance, I'm opposed to a silver fern because I don't want our flag to pay that much deference to rugby, and I think new attempts to merge the history of the Maori, European colonisation and our multi-cultural standing can only result in bitter division and a bureaucratic nightmare.

To me, New Zealanders are just wired to think a bit differently about our flag than Americans.

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