‘Do you think the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate?’ the Handsome Sidekick asked me as I was slouched on the couch, reading.
I thought about that for a moment.
‘Well… it was the flag of the South, during the Civil War, right? So I guess there is that aspect, with the slavery. I can see how people would be upset about it being flown. But… flags, you know? I mean, who decides which flag should be flown?’
It turns out, as we did a bit of reading about the Confederate flag and the evolution of the present American flag, that there were a lot more flags and banners around, at the time, than we realised. It raised the question of which flags are considered acceptable, and what a powerful symbol they are.
I can’t imagine anyone flying a flag emblazoned with a swastika without wanting to express his or her sympathies for extreme right wing politics, with a particular focus on anti-Semitism. If I see the flag of the rising sun, previously the flag of Japan, I think of Japanese soldiers in World War II, and the extremes they went to, in battle, in treatment of prisoners. People don’t generally fly these flags anymore, and if they do, they’re looking to elicit shock or outcry. These flags are tainted with the worst of humanity. The war in which they were displayed did not end in the favour of those flying these flags. They are symbols of defeat, as well as of cruelty, bloodshed, ruthlessness.
But my flag was on the winning side in that war. And while I certainly don’t condone the atrocities committed by either of the nations in question, I also wonder about the blood on my banner.
I’m used to this flag. I don’t pay much attention to it when I’m home, but when I’m overseas, it’s a beacon of familiarity; it catches my eye and I feel a connection to my homeland, a sense of knowing I belong somewhere, that there are my people, many of whom talk like me (and if they don’t, they can usually still understand me), who are living there by choice, and where the road rules and the currency and the television shows are like old friends. Not necessarily good friends, but the kind where I know where I stand, even if we don’t always agree with one another.
People have fought and died under my flag. They have travelled to world wars and foreign conflicts, wearing my flag proudly. They have held it up as a symbol of mateship, fairness, courage under fire. But my flag is a symbol of my country and its history, and that includes the dark, shadowy moments as well as the shining ones. Moments such as the deliberate massacres of the Indigenous population, for reasons I simply can’t fathom, which to my 21st century standards seem horrific and unintelligible. Or foreign policy decisions to increase the number of ‘white’ immigrants and keep out the number of immigrants of different skin colours. Or the decision to go to war based on flimsy evidence, the ramifications of which are still felt overseas and at home, and which seemed to me even at the time, more about defending someone else’s flag than our own.
My flag is not without its dark past. It even takes from the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Under those colours, countries have been conquered with little regard for indigenous populations. Under this flag, people have been displaced, disregarded, dispensed with.
What’s the difference between the Union Jack, or the Australian flag, or the American flag, and the swastika or the rising sun or the Confederate flags? A flag is there to represent the nation or group which flies it. It represents everything: the good, the bad, the ridiculous. It is a symbol of ownership, pride, nationalism, shame. It cannot help but carry with it a mixed bag of emotions — it represents a people over decades, and over decades, people change. They evolve, while the flag remains the same.
We attribute weight and importance to flags; without those attributes, they would simply be pieces of fabric. They can lend solace or inspire hatred. We place them in the ground, or on the moon, or under the sea to demonstrate that we were there, and we have succeeded where someone else has not. If ever there were a loaded symbol, it is the flag. In a battle, the winner hoist their flag high, and the loser’s is left in the dust. So it is with history.
Some may argue that flying a Confederate flag is to honour cultural ties to their forefathers, and to those who fought valiantly against an enemy that threatened that culture. However, it can’t be ignored that the Confederate flag has also been used as a symbol of a racism, of segregation and even vilification. Those who choose to fly this flag must ask themselves if it is possible to separate the parts of the culture they wish to celebrate, from the racist and hateful elements which existed in that same culture. One might argue that the Confederate flag’s original meaning has been hijacked by other more extreme groups, but the point remains the same: it does represent a dark moment in history, which darkness unfortunately follows it, right up to the present day. And flying it is going to cause offence and sadness, not only because it reminds many of us of a painful past, but also because it reminds us that there are many elements of that past which still exist in the present. Can it really be worth causing that pain and offence, for the sake of commemorating a highly selective version of events?
However, we often believe when we win a battle, our actions are justified, and that all criticism can be squarely focussed on the losing side. But while the victors may collect the spoils, may decide what history remembers and may decide whose flag is flown, it is important to remember that every flag is stained by conflict and intolerance and ugliness. We should not presume that our own past is without its transgressions. Rather we must accept that, whichever flag we fly, wrongs have been done and mistakes have been made, and how we accept and overcome these will determine just how proud we can be of that piece of coloured fabric at the top of the pole.