The resurgence before Australia Day of the movement to change the Australian Flag is both predictable and lamentable.
As a reform it sits squarely in the symbolic camp – self-evidently, changing the flag is not going to affect anyone in their everyday lives. Indeed, absent ostentatious promotion of any new flag, most people wouldn’t even see it for months on end.
No, this is yet more gesture politics, driven by the smart class for whom ‘meaningful’ gestures constitute the measure of one’s goodness.
But worse: if we are going to have a public debate about something which engages time, emotional energy and political capital, why are we wasting it on a 50th order issue like the graphic design of a visual emblem? We have too many issues our political class refuses to address to waste time on matters such as these.
That it is embraced indicates the head-in-the-sand nature of those at the heart of the smart class. It’s like Roman legions arguing over which standard to erect as Alaric entered Rome. Pointless, not addressing the key issues at hand, distracting from the important, but, oh, so symbolic.
It’s also representative of the linguistic and symbolic fallacy embraced by the Left and reforming liberals: that mere words can change reality, even if pushed from the top down onto a populace that can see through spin. Like most damaging fallacies, the insight is grounded in some truth, but has been extended beyond its usefulness.
That’s not to say that in an ideal, rationalised world a uniquely identifiable Australian flag wouldn’t be good. It would. But we are in neither an ideal, nor a rationalisable world. In fact, the presumption that the world is rationalisable is the classic mark of the modernist, smart class hubris that has dominated public life for years (nod to Oakeshott, as usual).
And so to the benefits of the flag change: National identity? Confidence on the world stage? A perception of being independent from Britain? Less offence to those Australians who don’t want to be associated with the British empire? Or more mundanely, a better TourismAustralia campaign?
Truly, look at the list Ausflag promotes. A flag will do all this? Don’t be absurd. Does a flag do it for any other nation in the world that doesn’t have identity, achievements, history and culture to add value to the flag? Compare the US flag to the Puerto Rican flag. The only reason one is more identifiable than another is because of what underpins it, not because of its design.
Further, each one of those representative items is a truly political issue. What they are is debatable and fundamentally political. Yet, in the usual smart class way, there is a presumption that there is one answer, and it is the smart class’s one, and that anyone who disagrees isn’t merely wrong, but troglodytic.
Of the putative benefits, the important ones emerge naturally and organically from below in a nation that has fixed borders (sea) and settled constitution. Australians don’t need the smart class telling them what their identity is, nor shaping it to match smart class rational pretensions. As for confidence and perceptions, these emerge from our behaviours, not from a piece of cloth sewn to our breast pocket.
I say this as someone who has no attachment to the current flag. For me, the flag is an irrelevance and I share no blood-and-soil nationalist view on it. I simply don’t care what it is. However, many do, and I do care if reform distracts and undermines.
The emotional nature of social cohesion is clear. It has to be taken seriously. And as much as it pains me to write it, tradition and longevity of institutions contribute to a degree of “givenness” or sacredness of institutions that underpins their value for cohesion.
As soon as reforming fiddlers rationalise a symbol, or an institution, then its ‘givenness’ is removed. If it is changed once to rationalise it, we can do it again. It is no longer actually a given symbol of a polity or a society, it represents what whoever is in charge at that time wants to say.
And as much as you may wish otherwise, functional societies have a kernel of the sacred that is pre-rational. This kernel represents the things you ‘just’ don’t do, or have to do. It also represents ‘us-ness’. And while this is the ostensible goal for flag-changers, flag-changing is really part of a suite of rationalising change that results in the death of the pre-rational sacred. It removes the emotional element necessary for ‘givenness’. The symbol becomes just another arm of the fiddling bureaucracy.
In short, it is self-defeating.
But put all the theorising aside. The argument killer is simple. Arguing to change the flag is a waste of time when anyone with a smidgen of economic or political history can see that a tsunami of social upset is coming. Stop wanking. Do something real.