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Op-eds

Tinderbox patterns on fabric

  • Geoff
What is it about a piece of fabric with patterns and colours that can make people rush into battle and get killed? Millions have died in wars, heroically emblazoned with their national colours, proudly dying for the flag!
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Sep 26, 2019

Even if they didn’t die in war, on the way to the graveside, an important person’s coffin gets draped ceremonially in their national flag.

With the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Europe, fascist-like thugs are appearing, brandishing flags with swastika look-alikes reminiscent of the 1930s, expressing anti-Semitic obscenities. Jews fear displaying their own flags or Israeli flags outside synagogues, particularly in countries with intense anti-Semitism such as France.

Historically, flags have represented not just prejudice, but slavery. In the American Civil War in 1862, in which more than 620 000 died, the Confederacy’s national flag, called the Stars and Bars, flew in pro-slavery Montgomery, Alabama. The war was fought over slavery in the southern states – the Confederacy had seceded to form a new country to protect slavery. Incredibly, thousands of soldiers died willingly for this in the shadow of the Stars and Bars.

Such passions die slowly. Today, the Confederate flag is among the most recognisable, popular items in American memorabilia, appearing everywhere alongside the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. Americans argue about what the Confederate flag stands for now: is it heritage or hatred? Supporters of its continued use claim that it’s a proud symbol of the culture of the American south. In a national survey in 2015, 57% of Americans said the flag represented southern pride, not racism.

Should some flags be banned? It’s unlikely you can repress something like this without reverting to a police state. Some countries have tried. In Germany, you can’t legally display the Nazi flag in public, except for historical purposes.

But in the United States, free-speech laws allow the display of Nazi symbols. It’s a favourite of eccentrics like motorcycle gangs. But there, too, anti-Semitism is rising.

Thankfully, Jews are still fairly safe from anti-Semitism in South Africa, and it’s unlikely a Nazi flag with a swastika would be allowed to be displayed publicly. It would probably be deemed hate speech by the Constitution, the right to dignity of Jewish citizens would disallow it, and public sentiment would reject it. The Nazi flag is a close cousin of the hated apartheid flag, and would evoke similar distaste.

Anyone who grew up and lived in apartheid South Africa will recall the old, evocative apartheid flag flying above government buildings everywhere, with ugly associations for black South Africans and some whites. We have a new flag now, but the old one keeps hanging around, causing controversy. At the time of writing, a legal spat is continuing between the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) and South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets over his display of the apartheid flag.

Freedom of speech is never straightforward. Countries which guarantee free speech are sorely tested to define exactly what that means in practice. Similar to words, a flag is much more than a piece of fabric with patterns and colours.

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