TT: Contentious Flags

JANE: Alan, last week, you mentioned that there’s actually a Maori flag of sorts. How does that work?

ALAN: Yes – Tino rangatiratanga is a Maori phrase that probably best translates as “Maori Sovereignty.” It’s also the name of a flag that is sometimes referred to as the Maori flag. Personally I find it to be a very attractive design.  (You can find a discussion of Tino rangatiratanga as a political movement at this link).

Maori Flag

Maori Flag

JANE: That’s a gorgeous flag. Why can’t you guys just use that one? It fills all your requirements and would look lovely on knickers.

ALAN: Indeed it would! Personally, I’m very fond of it. Unfortunately, it comes with a lot of baggage. Many politically radical Maori activists passionately promote the Tino rangatiratanga  flag. There have been requests to the government to have it flying alongside the New Zealand flag on significant dates such as Waitangi Day. Surprisingly, these requests have been quite effective and the flag is now often flown in that way. But its association with a set of sometimes rather extreme political views means that it is unlikely to be adopted as a national flag. In a very real sense, it’s seen as being divisive rather than as something that can promote unity.

JANE: I can understand that.  Pity.  It’s more than pretty.  It’s elegant and memorable.

Here in the U.S. we also have a flag that is still flown in some areas of the country, although it can stir up some negative reactions.  This is the flag commonly called the Confederate flag.  It’s gotten a lot of press lately because of the recent shootings in South Carolina, but as a Yorkshireman-born and naturalized New Zealander, you may not be aware of its actual history and origins.

ALAN: I’ve always just assumed that it was the flag under which the Confederates fought in your Civil War. I’ve never thought of it any more deeply than that. Is there more to it?

JANE: There is indeed.  Oddly enough, this flag was never used by the Confederated States of America – the “South” in the American Civil War.  Instead it was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Lee.

Given the constellation that ornaments New Zealand’s current national flag, you might be amused to know that one of the nicknames for this flag is the “Southern Cross.”

ALAN: I love the nickname! I had no idea that the flag wasn’t actually used by the Confederate States. I suppose that’s what happens when you learn your history from the movies…

JANE: Or television.  I’ll get to that in a moment…

The Confederate flag had a resurgence in popularity in the early twentieth century as an emblem of the American South.  In World War II, some military units associated with the South carried the Confederate flag as a sort of identity marker.

However, later the flag was adopted by radical racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. This tarnished the flag’s image in the eyes of many.

ALAN: Yes, I can see how that must have poisoned the well.

JANE: Not all the uses have been negative.  There’s one that’s actually amusingly appropriate.  Did you ever watch a television show called The Dukes of Hazzard?

ALAN: Oh, yes! A friend of mine who was a keen motorcyclist once told me, with a perfectly straight face, that he was going to replace his leathers with a Dukes of Hazzard T-shirt. When I asked him why, he pointed out that they were constantly crashing into things and being thrown out of their vehicles and they never got so much as a scratch or a graze. He didn’t know what the T-shirts were made of, but the material obviously provided much better protection than a full set of leathers did!

JANE: Oh…  I’m laughing.  I read that to Jim and he’s bent double at the waist with tears coming out of his eyes.  You have seen the show!

On The Dukes of Hazzard, the main characters drove a car called The General Lee.  Painted on the car’s roof is the Confederate flag.  When you remember that this flag was the banner flown by the actual General Lee, it is nicely appropriate.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either.  According to one source I looked at, the car was originally going to be called “Traveler,” after General Lee’s horse, but the idea was dropped because they figured no one would catch the reference.

ALAN: Probably true. I only learned about Traveler when I read Connie Willis’ novel Lincoln’s Dreams. But I think I’ve always known about General Lee.

JANE: Hey, that’s where I learned about the horse, too!  See, reading SF is educational…

Anyhow, you can find lots of information about the Confederate Flag on-line, including some really loopy stuff, so I won’t repeat.  In a sense though, it’s become our Maori flag – a design that has acquired numerous negative associations that have nothing to do with its original creation.

ALAN: A striking parallel.

JANE: I actually have another flag-related question for you, but it could get complicated, so I’ll save it for next time.

3 Responses to “TT: Contentious Flags”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Sadly, Dukes of Hazzard reruns on at least one network have reportedly been dropped due to the flag on the car.

    Such is life. Still, when one sees how many of those damned stars n’ bars were first lofted around the time of the civil rights movement, it stops being nearly as pleasant a symbol. It’s crawling up there with the swastika as a symbol whose association with bigotry and hatred has dragged it into disrepute.

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Aha! So you two are behind the brouhaha over the Confederate Battle Flag! Just kidding, but it has become quite a debate on social media. A movie critic suggested that “Gone With the Wind” should be relegated to a scrap heap, glorifying the Southern cause and making slavery seem like fun, which set off a whole new debate about banning movies, and what might be next. But that flag has probably outlived its usefulness as a symbol, and it’s certainly a negative symbol for African-Americans.

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