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Letters from Downunder

Rally around the flag

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
          - Shakespeare, sonnet 53

(8/2015) It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. James Baldwin, in a speech, March 7, 1965

Flags are funny things, aren’t they? Scraps of cloth or plastic having special shape with odd pictures and designs on them, flown on masts, or hung around a room. They are used to send messages, signals, or set points of assembly. Above all, they are the means by which we identify a nation, including our own. They are the symbols of nationality, the call sign of home, our identity for all to see. They are an unnoticed essential in our daily lives, for they give us a nation to belong to. They also can give us a joyous pride in that nation, and allow us to give them honorifics – the Jack, Old Glory, The Stars and Stripes, the Southern Cross – that become part of our pride in being of that country.

They are as old as civilization, and no group gets far without one. Yet they can be divisive as well, and many have died as the result of allegiance to the one not in power at the time. So here’s a little story about such a flag, one still dividing a nation close to you. Not far from where I live is a small island, an offshoot of a larger island that is home to a world-famous penguin parade, and this small place was the site of the first market garden in the state. It was alluvial, easy to get to and cultivate, and the foresight shown by the British in its establishment was amazing. It was so wondrous that reports flowed back the England, then to the the newly formed United States where it was discovered by some Confederate supporters.

In due time the most famous ship of the confederate Navy, the CSS Shenandoah, arrived in Melbourne after traversing the world – some 58,000 miles of it in just over 12 months - sinking or capturing Union ships, mostly whalers, disrupting the Union’s supply and income. Why did they come all the way down here? Because they believed they could safely pick up recruits, supplies and have a refit. And this they did, with some 40 men replacing the 19 who jumped ship and who then reported to the US consul about the activities of the captain and crew. The boat then headed back toward England via Mexico, being pursued by Union forces. They reached Liverpool where they learnt the war was over, surrendered and lowered their colours, the last time this occurred in the Civil war. They avoided being hanged as pirates by claiming they were all ‘Southerners’ or South American who, being part of an army, could not have been pirates – this despite their very non-south accents.

The records show that some $20,000,000 (in today’s figures) of shipping and other supply was taken, but Britain had to pay a very large figure in compensation to the Union government for allowing (not forbidding, that is) the boat to be serviced at one of her Majesty’s shipyards – the one here in Melbourne. Today the only reminder of their visit is on the small island mentioned above: a four pound signal gun and a full sized Confederate flag presented as thanks to the city. It’s still a popular tourist area, although support for the Confederate cause vanished a long time ago. Saluting the Southern Cross is the right and privilege of all Australians, old and new, and we do so with a good heart. This is the point: We either are or are not supporters of the country in which we are citizens, even with all the disquiet and apprehension we feel over certain things – monetary policy, for instance.

It seems, though, that some people in your country are angry that the old ways have gone, and wish to see them restored. Days when they believed they were in charge, when they could make money the way they liked best, one of them being the use of slaves; Confederates used to see this as a way of life, rarely caring for the fact that slaves are human and have rights, relying for their justification on old testament concepts when slavery was the norm. There is, however, a very big difference between putting your point of view and embarking on repudiation of the nation’s values and codes. For, when it is all boiled down, we are either loyal or we are not. Supportive or subversive, upholding the ethics and moral code of the place we call home, or trying to subvert them. It may still rankle that the Confederates lost the war, but they did, and to threaten to take up arms again is exactly what ISIS has done.

From this distance it seems ludicrous, but dreams of the Shenandoah still exist, the Confederate flag is a rallying point, secession is on the talkfests, any idea of gun control is out the window, the Klan is washing hoods, and the notion of being in a country united by common good is seen as stupid. Now they have the joy of Donald trump joining their cause – at least in effect. What more could they want?

I do not know how you good folk of Emmitsburg feel about this, being so close to the famous dividing line, but from what I read you are American through and through and proud of it. You hold the wholesome, simple, and cultural things of your lives in great esteem, just as most of us here do for ours; you are ready to see fairness and equity preserved in a great and united nation. You are prepared to go forward, not back, irrespective of what the future may hold. Apart from honesty, tolerance, high ethical standards, vision, and a rounded education, the old ways do not last. They are swept aside by the winds of change, (now threatening to bring down all our dwellings), while nostalgia for a lost cause stays in a straw house. It really doesn’t matter that the flag doesn’t salute us back. It’s still the symbol of our country, and thus the symbol of our loyalty. Every country has one. Having two divides and destroys.

What we have is too good to deny or destroy. What we have is worth celebrating – every day. Me? I’ll stay focused on all the good and wonderful things around me and my fellows, and salute you as you do the same.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker