Monday, 12 December 2016

Some Thoughts on Flags

by Arthur Palmer 

Yes, flags. My first encounter was when, as a six-year-old, I began school at Naumai in Northland New Zealand. This was at the beginning of 1925, only six years-and-a bit since the Great War, as it was called then, had ended. I had to learn that the impressive flagpole which stood fifty yards from the school entrance door was more than simply the main mast of a vessel wrecked in the Kaipara harbour. Certainly it was that, and it must have been the envy of other schools. But it was also the centrepiece of a ceremony which occurred from time to time, when the British Union Jack was hoisted and saluted by the entire school of about 45 students.

We were roughly half-and-half Maori and white pakeha, but there was no acknowledgement that we differed in any way from a traditional English school in Britain. Our Principal was a very British woman who appeared to my young eyes quite elderly. She kept order without any corporal punishment or regime of fear. The only penalty that I can recall seeing was a pupil’s mouth being ceremoniously washed out in the corridor for swearing. It was patiently endured and the swearing continued unabated.

And so did the flag ceremony, supported by songs of Empire glory. The chorus of the only one that I can still remember included these lines:

Hearts of oak are our ships. Jolly tars are our men,
We always are ready. Steady boys, steady.
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

And in the playground I often heard a very un-British song which puzzled me:

Take me over the sea, Where the Allyman can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.       

It was clear that the singers of that plaintive ditty felt themselves to be victims. Victims of what was not clear to me for some time. And flags were in the background of that one too.

Now here I am, many decades later, staying with my daughter Ruth in the home that she has just bought. And only ten feet from the window where I eat my breakfast there stands a stainless steel flagpole with all the necessary cords to hoist an emblem of loyalty to some important concept, of nationhood perhaps. Fixed on top is a small globe about four inches in diameter to deter any birds from alighting and polluting this semi-sacred erection which is there to declare the owner’s loyalty to the flag displayed. The pole is likely to stay unadorned while Ruth is living here.

We need to listen to the voice of Howard Zinn on this. He is speaking to his fellow-Americans, but we in New Zealand seem to regard the American military umbrella as our best guarantee of security, even as we  pay our dues by supporting US action in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Zinn’s warning is there for us too.

“Put Away the Flags” was written almost a decade ago. In that time US arms have been continuously in use to destroy the infrastructure and many of the people who live and die in this difficult area. This is not the road to a better world of peaceful cooperation. Nor to security. Yet in the near future with a Trump as US President we are likely to see more, rather than less, of confrontational politics, nation against nation, class against class. As Zinn tells us: “We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

Idealistic and fanciful nonsense? Yes, I can hear the dismissing comments. But I do believe that there is a growing anger and disillusionment with the assumption that we must concentrate on maintaining our dominant position, with the help of powerful friends and the most advanced weapons. The unexpected support for Bernie Sanders in the US Presidential election was a positive message, disregarded but still there. Trump is almost sure to serve no more than one term as President.

But what are your thoughts on all this? I welcome your comments. Meanwhile let’s listen to Howard Zinn.

No comments:

Post a Comment