The inclusion and subsequent failure of Red Peak in the New Zealand flag referendum is a triumph of democracy; pats on the back to everyone involved.
We should avoid being churlish and grumpy about the outcome even in the face of perceived Peak-hater crowing. My disdain for the flag referendum process is not exactly a secret, so perhaps it was just spite that made me hopeful that Red Peak would be able to sweep up the first vote. I certainly didn’t care all that much for the design, I couldn’t have picked it out of the long list if you’d asked me to. What I did care about however is what I felt it represented. I was excited at the prospect of a small, organic social media campaign potentially upsetting what has – in the eyes of many – been a complete waste of time and taxpayer money. In part I just love a good underdog story, I did find Red Peak the least offensive of the final five, most importantly though I wanted to see if we had reached that social tipping point yet where ‘the new’ starts winning over ‘the old’. I definitely had my doubts, Red Peak supporters seemed to be comprised primarily of people around my age level and typically we have a fairly poor voting turnout.
Red Peak was also a better design than the two Lockwood’s, I know plenty of people will argue against this part but wearing this shirt without sarcasm leaves you permanently disqualified from commenting on “good taste”. People who resist this notion tend to do so under the claim that “It’s all subjective” which is the same logic used by people who don’t “get” modern art, the fashion industry or the study of design. It essentially boils down to I don’t understand x, therefore x is stupid. I won’t ask you to watch that TED talk about the fundamentals of flag design, I’m not going to reiterate the explanation of exactly how those little triangles convey meaning, it’s too late to make people like the flag. I just hope the critics and mockers can also understand that when we now transfer those Red Peak votes into No Change votes it’s not just because of sour grapes, rather it’s because we don’t want these old folks burdening us with Sean Plunkett’s appalling fashion sense for the next few decades.
Of course “old folks” is a gross generalization. I should mention there were no shortage of demographic outliers and just like there are “Young Nats” and “Black republicans”, Red Peak and the Lockwood designs had old and young fans respectively. That said, the Venn diagram of “People Who Were Angry About Red Peak” and “Old White Dudes” is almost indistinguishable from a circle. These are the same old white dudes who keep voting for National and also tend to think climate change is a myth. For some OWDs having a total stranglehold on New Zealand’s voting consensus is not enough, they have to also hate anyone who might challenge this comfortable position.
This tweet summed up the sentiment rather well:
Come on all you stupid red peakers start another petition. Nah too late shut up once and for all
– Jonathan Basile (@jonobasile), December 11, 2015
Translation: “Ha! That’ll teach you to try!”
This isn’t a new narrative though. If you studied English or Drama in high school there’s a reasonable chance you came across a two-and-a-half thousand year old play by the Greek writer Aristophanes called “The Wasps”. The central struggle of this story is built on the tension between old world values (Philokleon) and new world values (his son, Bdelycleon). The former, in his old age, is resentful of the latter who he sees as weak and unprincipled. The younger is mostly exasperated by his father’s apparent unwillingness to change with the times. This has been a constant struggle in global politics from time immemorial: the outmoded values of the ancien régime vs. the democratic apathy of the young. It’s not a perfect analogy but it highlights the fact that this has pretty much always been, and will likely continue to be, a problem for our species. It’s also a sad thought to acknowledge because the tension between old power and new ideas means our best plan for getting things done is just waiting for the old power to start dying off. It’s a pretty icky quandary when we care about people but also disagree with them. The upside is that as long as the struggle has existed, so has the eventual changing of the guards. We might still cringe a little when Grandma asks about “that nice negro boy” that she saw at the shops but we can mostly wave it away because she grew up in another time. My own kids might chuckle and say “Oh grandpa!” as my dad tries to explain to them about how climate change is mostly hyperbole and how our shrinking coastline just means more family time at the beach.
The problem is once we get old enough to start really influencing policy there is a decent chance we will also be out of touch. It’s probably too soon to tell which sociopolitical issue my generation will get to be totally wrong about, but it will almost definitely be something we’ll have a hard time letting go of while our grandchildren will freely embrace it. Some possible contenders at least in my mind include nuclear power, GMOs, trans-humanism and the birth of AI. The real victory in democracy is when we’re able to start looking into the future, less concerned about the current state of things we can start to govern in a more holistic, utilitarian way. We might just be selfless enough to vote for things knowing we’ll never reap the benefits. It’s like the old Greek proverb says: A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
I’m confident that we’ll keep getting better at this process. I’m confident because my generation is, on average, smarter than my parent’s generation – we’re also getting stronger and more open to new ideas. While my own brain might fall somewhere in the middle of the road I have enough brilliant peers to bring the overall median up above our parents. People might scoff at this or dismiss it as “the arrogance of youth”, there is however plenty of strong data to support what is known as the Flynn Effect. It might feel bad to admit it, nobody wants to feel redundant, but this process is a big part of parenthood. People who deliberately choose to have kids don’t typically wish mediocrity upon them, at least not consciously. They usually hope above all else that their children will be happy, healthy, smart and passionate human beings. If anything the Flynn Effect is a testament to a continual trend of good parenting. So like us, the next generation should – in line with observable trends – be smarter than us and so on and so forth until we reach a theoretical intelligence zenith or a technological singularity. For all the doom and gloom in the world it’s a good way to stay optimistic. Like Philokleon, my generation will inevitably try to hold on to snippets of power wherever we can find them, but I suspect the key to aging gracefully and staying relevant is the ability to shift gears later in life. We need to be willing/able to transition from being thought leaders to instead spending our energy transferring our wealth of experience to a new demographic.
Our nation’s flag honestly doesn’t matter in this broader world view but the same principle definitely applies to issues like marriage equality (the majority serving the minority at no real cost to themselves) and climate change (the old serving the young though admittedly at some cost to themselves). Where the flag debate does become relevant is when one group of people starts to bash another group of people for the crime of trying to inject a bit of spirit into an otherwise disappointing sideshow. The same sneering “I told you so” was common from National voters when they won by a staggering majority last election. It only really serves to entrench voter apathy; admittedly a winning albeit synical strategy for the Right. It’s also important that we don’t continue to perpetuate that pernicious lie that people who don’t vote have no right to complain when there are countless legitimate reasons to abstain from voting. So kudos to everyone who pushed for Red Peak, kudos to everyone who voted, regardless of how they voted, and kudos to people who didn’t end up voting at all. I’ll see you all next referendum and we can all vote to just keep the old flag, at least that’s something most of us can agree on now.