There was a poem which my mother had learnt off by heart as a girl and portions of which she could long remember and recite to us. It was, I later discovered, Whittier’s Barbara Frietchie, and it tells of a true episode in the American Civil War when Confederate forces, occupying a town in the north, decreed on pain of death that all Union flags in the town should be taken down. Heroic old Barbara refused, and
‘Shoot if you must this old grey head
But spare your country’s flag’ she said.
The officer was moved.
‘Who touches a hair of yon grey head
Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.
A nation’s flag is a precious thing. It arises out of a long history; it grows with a people and tells their story. The New Zealand flag is no exception. On the blue of the Pacific Ocean shines the Southern Cross, the great guiding constellation of our skies, and in one corner the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick ~ England, Scotland and Ireland ~ tell of our British ancestors ~ the explorers and pioneers who found New Zealand a barbarous, albeit beautiful, wilderness of warring tribes, and created by their patient heroic labours the land of peace and comparative prosperity we have inherited. Certainly, there is nothing specifically Maori here, and it might be nice if there were, although Maori crossed the blue Pacific guided by the stars, and all Maori, after all, have British ancestry, even if they prefer to ignore or deny the fact; but this is our flag. It is a pretty accurate reflection of our nation and of the traditions and ideals which have shaped and made us and, until recently anyway, inspired us. We shall need those ideals again in future. It is perhaps a bit of an accident of history, but then so are many things. We have never been a great flag-waving nation; we are an undemonstrative, laconic people; but all the same, this is what we are. Our ancestors, Maori and British, have fought and sometimes died for it. A flag is not just a pretty piece of cloth. It is not just a corporate logo, to be updated or perhaps completely changed the next time the business is redefining itself or repositioning itself in the global marketplace. It is not just ‘a symbol’, as three gold balls, say, symbolise a pawnbroker, or a blindfolded woman with scales and sword signify justice. It is more than that; and that is why the Prime Minister’s decision that the Maori sovereignty flag will fly from Parliament, Premier House, government buildings and the Auckland Harbour Bridge next Waitangi Day is so foolish and ominous a sign.
The word ‘nation’ comes ultimately from the Latin verb nascor, nasci, natus sum, meaning to be born. A nation was all those people born of a common ancestor. It was, then, a giant family. Apart from total conquest and absorption, other peoples could become part of ones nation only by adoption, an arrangement far commoner in the ancient world than it is now. By adoption the incoming people became the descendants of the same ancestor; they could therefore participate in the state religion, which usually involved the worship of the deified ancestor or of the god or gods who had entered into a solemn covenant with the ancestor, and who were the guardians of the state.
No-one would suggest that our citizenship ceremonies go quite so far. But there is a profound truth underlying these arrangements. A nation is not just a group of people who happen to live on the same piece of land. We could not call the inhabitants of China , say, or the former Yugoslavia a nation. A nation is made up of people who have a great deal in common. There are always differences and interests, of course, but the members of a nation believe that more unites them than divides them. They therefore are prepared ~ not without grumbling, certainly, from time to time ~ to put the common good before the interests of their particular tribe.
One of the common unthinking slogans of those who a couple of years ago were agitating for a new national flag was that we needed one which would ‘reflect our diversity as a nation’ This is complete nonsense. Diversity is difference. The more diversity there is in anything, the less there is in common. That is what diversity means. It is impossible to have a flag (which epitomises who and what we are ~ what we have in common) which reflects the fact that we are ‘diverse’ and have nothing in common.
Tribalism is the enemy of nationhood. The flying of a Maori sovereignty flag on our national day may be looked upon as a meaningless gesture by those for whom nothing is sacred, and who see our own flag only as a meaningless bit of cloth. They ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But Maori sovereignty enthusiasts do not see it as an empty gesture, and neither should anyone else. It is an insult to those who serve and love our nation’s flag, for no other flag can be as good, and Maori sovereignty and division is the enemy of the one new Zealand nation of our very own flag. There may be arguments as to what ‘exactly’ Maori sovereignty means. One radical will claim it is one thing, another another. But this at least is perfectly clear ~ that it means that those who fly it do not want to be part of the same nation the rest of us are in. They will continue to want the funding of course. But for the rest, they consider those outside the tribe to be ~ what were Hone Harawira’s words again? ~ just people to be used, exploited and at the same time hated. We have to be grateful to Hone ~ which is more than he is to us, of course, for the manifold blessings of European civilisation ~ in that at least he reminds us of what we are up against. He is the true voice of the Maori party. No other voice is possible.
Dr Brash was absolutely right when he made his wonderful Orewa speech, and Phil Goff was absolutely right when he recently similarly warned of the dangers of racial division. It is a depressing indication of the madness now an unquestioned part of our national life that those calling for racial equality and respect for the rights of all, including the foreshore and seabed as our common heritage, are automatically condemned as racist. New Zealand is indeed a deeply racist country. But the racism lies in a race-based political party, racially-selected Parliamentary seats and members, a special racial electoral roll, race based sports teams, schools and units within schools, television stations, government departments, trusts and financial assistance galore, legal recognition of racial privilege, treaty indoctrination on every conceivable occasion. Universities now have special Maori graduations. No public ceremony in our secular country is complete without Maori elders and karakia. Every new appointee in the public service is welcomed with a powhiri…..None of this is diminishing. It is growing. We are not working towards becoming one nation. We are walking in completely the opposite direction.
And not only is this racial distinction growing, it is absolutely clearly not working in its alleged aim of producing a happier tomorrow and relieving poverty and distress. A small tribal elite benefits. But how many of the benefits trickle down to the increasingly desperate alienated Maori underclass? They are vastly over-represented in all the wrong statistics ~ poverty, crime, prison population, truancy and illiteracy, unemployment, alcoholism and drug dependency, domestic violence and child abuse. If New Zealand were to extract the Maori (and, to a lesser extent, Pacific Islander) figures for these social ills from our statistics, we would appear as one of the happiest and best countries in the world. But instead, we are marred by this sad and growing underclass. The social welfare system subsidises its breeding, and so we are willingly creating the most dreadful social problem for the future. No government seems interested in stopping this vicious circle. Maori in Australia , where many of energy and enterprise have gone to live, are just as prosperous as anyone else. But here so many are mired in a system that seems designed to trap them in hopelessness. Liberals love to talk about this racism, as revealing our own wickedness and selfishness, while ignoring the racism of Maori privilege. What we must realise is that these two racisms are the two sides of the same coin.
It may be that for as variety of reasons Phil Goff is unlikely to become Prime Minister, although you never know. Look at that unexciting John Major. But the National Party would do well to remember the effect of Don Brash’s Orewa speech. At the time it was given the National Party was in serious, perhaps even terminal decline. Despite the almost universal disapproval of media commentators ~ practically everyone announced loftily that New Zealanders would not fall for this shameful obvious playing of ‘the race card’ ~ the speech’s sentiments struck a chord with ordinary people who recognised its truth. Those New Zealanders have not gone away, and they have not changed their opinions. How will they vote next time?
And what will happen in the near future when the money runs out? When the world’s lenders refuse, or are simply unable, to support any longer a lazy nation, too cowardly to confront its own problems, and which has been living beyond its means for the last generation? When the world economy collapses, the price of oil starts to soar (and our whole economy and civilisation rests on oil ~ without it tourism and agriculture, for a start, as they are currently practised, are unthinkable) and climate change brings woe? Then, even more pressingly than now, we will not be inclined to spend our last precious pennies on support for the unde
rclass, or for anyone except ourselves. Without the anaesthetic of social welfare, however, ugly voices will be raised. And not just voices. Bella, horrida bella et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno. Hone Harawira’s recent outburst is only a taste of things to come. Dreadful changes are coming. We all of us urgently need to realise that we have to look after ourselves far more, and that unity in the face of hardship and peril is vitally necessary. Yet Maori sovereignty perpetuates the hateful myth that everything is the white man’s fault, that Maori have nothing in common with him and would be better off on their own. But with the funding, of course. To fly the flag of a movement dedicated to the dismantling of our country shows how foolish and blind we have become. The Maori sovereignty flag is the enemy of the flag it will be flying next to.
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