Flagging patriotism in a divided world

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Sheldon Cooper, the gifted but humourless protagonist of the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, makes a hobby of vexillology, and so often produces his own videos entitled Fun with Flags.

Greek flag on mountainsideOf course the predictable joke is that the segments are unremittingly dull, and thus far there has been no mention of one entertaining example: Australia's Fighting Kangaroo.

But in general flags are not to be taken lightly, as the so-called Budgie Nine of Australia now know, having recently learned a salutary lesson, one hopes, following their tasteless and disrespectful display of the Malaysian flag on their swimwear.

The great Dr Johnson may have considered patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel, but there is a huge number of patriots in the world, as it usually requires a concerted effort to challenge one's childhood conditioning. Before I turned five, for example, I was in the serried Monday morning ranks of children who had to swear, among other vows, to honour the flag: boys had to salute said object.

As a result, I have to confess that every time I visited London and saw the Australian flag flying above Australia House in the Strand, my heart lifted a little.

Much earlier, in my first observation of homesickness in action, I watched, shocked, as a Greek friend burst into tears at the sight of the then unfamiliar emblematic blue and white stripes. One of Greece's best soccer teams had come to play against a Melbourne team: the Greeks ran out on to Olympic Park, carrying their flag, and big, strapping Panayiotis sobbed helplessly for quite some minutes.

Each stripe of the Greek flag's alternating blue and white stripes represents a syllable of the declaration Freedom or Death, and just yesterday I watched a young BBC journalist interview a fiery Cretan village priest, who demonstrated his reverence and allegiance by kissing a corner of the flag.

'What would happen', asked the young man, 'if someone came here and desecrated the flag in some way?' The priest did not mince words. Thanatos. Death. The flag, with its white cross in one corner, represents modern Greek history: it stands for the long struggle against the Ottoman yoke, sacrifice, pride, inspiration and faith in Orthodoxy. For all of Greek life.

 

"I rather like the idea and the sight of the flag on the mountain. We have had stormy weather rather than bombs bursting in air, thank goodness, but the big Greek flag is still there."

 

Greeks so value their flag that it is hard to imagine a scene like the British Last Night of the Proms, with its mixture of light-heartedness and irony, being enacted in Athens, where flag-waving is usually reserved for enormous political rallies. In London some people cloak themselves in the Union Jack, while in a crammed Albert Hall and Hyde Park, flags are brandished with great gusto during the traditional and full-throated rendition of 'Rule, Britannia'. This year, however, there was something of a 'flag war', as defeated 'Remainers' determinedly fought back with the starred emblem of the European Union, in a slightly bizarre return to the general original purpose of flags: that of identification during battle.

The American elections are almost upon us, and Old Glory has naturally been very much in evidence throughout this most gruelling and worrying of campaigns. But so has talk about borders, security and walls, measures designed to exclude suffering people whose allegiances and homelands have, for the most part, been drastically changed: many of them are running from the Black Banner of ISIS.

Early one morning during the recent summer, my two elder grandsons came running in from their play, yelling about ee simaia, the flag. Mystified, I went to investigate, and was bemused to see an enormous Greek flag spread quite high up on the mountainside. My son busied himself with Google, and we discovered that this installation is to be noted in the Guinness Book of Records. Thirty local people teamed together to make it, and it is 1500 square metres in area. Visible from the other side of Messenian Bay, it is part of publicity for Kalamata's bid to become the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2020.

I'm not sure of Kalamata's chances in this bid, but I rather like the idea and the sight of the flag on the mountain. We have had stormy weather rather than bombs bursting in air, thank goodness, but the big Greek flag is still there.

 


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, flags, US elections, ISIS, Greece, Brexit


 

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"Each stripe of the Greek flag's alternating blue and white stripes represents a syllable of the declaration Freedom or Death....The flag, with its white cross in one corner, represents modern Greek history: it stands for the long struggle against the Ottoman yoke, sacrifice, pride, inspiration and faith in Orthodoxy. For all of Greek life." Thanks for the information about the Greek flag and the intimation that a flag is a document to be read. But what kind of document? Is it enough that it is impartial and empirical with symbols of the physical nature of the land or must it be symbolically partisan about the past and the future (and about the present which is usually a fluid mess of all sorts of aspirations-in-the-making)? What should we be reading on a national or sub-national Australian flag? Some national songs have no words and there is sense in avoiding lyrics that can become dated or cloying in an age where the Internet makes everyone an assembler of words. Meaning can be abstracted from wordless music if certain conventions are known. What conventions should we need to know to read what we should read from the wordless designs of Australian flags?
Roy Chen Yee | 21 October 2016


Is this in Australia you are saying in the 1950s/1960s you had to honour the flag? This was not the case growing up in the ACT. Sounds very American.
Rosemary Sheehan | 24 October 2016


We are the only country divided rather than united by flag, anthem and constitutional monarchy. We are still this funny little culturally cringing nation doffing hats and tugging forelocks to Union Jacks and crowned heads.
Peter Goers | 24 October 2016


Growing up in Sydney at primary school in the Fifties and Sixties. Every week we marched in our class groups to the school assembly where we had to recite the mantra "I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I am loyal to my school, I salute the flag". The boys had to physically salute the flag and teachers would check that we were doing it correctly. I think the line about loyalty to the school was a local variation because friends who went to other schools did not say that, but the rest was standard. This was at a state school. I wonder how many of the kids grew up to become atheist republicans who want to change the flag!
Brett | 24 October 2016


I have always been suspicious of too much devotion to a national flag, especially in the USA where they seem to revere the stars and stripes. Growing up in the 50s, I'm sure we had no Australian flag at either primary or secondary school, which suited me fine, though I did and do quite like it. I can understand Gillian Bouras' feelings about the erection of a giant Greek flag near her local town, but I dislike the fad for wearing flags and waving them about excessively. The last refuge of a scoundrel? If Trump wins the Presidential election, I am quite sure he will not Make America Great Again - he has already diminished it by his absurd policies. Countries do not become great by drawing back behind their boundaries - or hiding behind flags.
Rodney Wetherell | 24 October 2016


Flags do certainly convey a lot of meaning for many people. When I was at primary school in SA, in the late 1940s, we would recite the oath to the British monarch (who very rarely visited us) and salute the Australian flag with the British Union Jack on it. This practice was not continued at high school, thankfully. These days, as an avowed Australian republican with progressive politics, I feel alienated when I see fellow citizens promoting the "Australian" flag - especially when they have car stickers stating "Love it or leave"! I feel that the Union Jack should be removed and replaced with a graphic of Aboriginal origin (maybe the Aboriginal flag if that is what our indigenous people want). The Aboriginal people were here for about 60,000 years before the European invaders and settlers came and conducted genocide against them. Having an Aboriginal design on the flag is another way of promoting reconciliation.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 October 2016


I hope that Kalamata does become city of culture, it deserves a boost. I think the flag looks magnificent and as long as the history and patriotism is secondary to humanity, I'm all for it.
Maggie | 25 October 2016


Yes, it seems such a long time ago now, but I can remember reciting the 'loyalty mantra' in front of the flag, fluttering on its pole in the 1950's at a Victorian country school. From memory, after being brought to attention and placing our hands on our hearts our recitation went 'I love God and my country; I honour (or was it I salute) the flag; I will serve the Queen, and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers, and the laws. After this we would march to our class rooms a little out of step, to the familiar well worn and scratchy sounds of a military brass band, played over a public address system.
John Whitehead | 26 October 2016


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