If you fly a Nazi flag on the roof of your house in Germany, you could get three years in jail. If you do it in Australia, you’ll get famous. Briefly.
Cheryl Lawdorn, owner of the home in the rural Victorian town of Beulah on which a Nazi flag of sorts had been flying, no doubt knew what she was in for when she ran it up the flagpole. When the media took notice, her defence was ready: she has German ancestry, so there.
The flag in question isn’t one that ever had an official role; it’s a pastiche of Nazi and Imperial German imagery, but the swastika’s centrality makes it clear enough that Lawdorn’s heritage celebration is not generically German, rather more specifically 1933-45 German.
After reportedly removing the flag this morning, another bizarre rationale surfaced that the owners “did not know it would cause offence”.
The calls came in thick and fast for prosecution. This was then followed by the shocked realisation that it’s not illegal to fly a Nazi flag, and then of course demands for new laws to make it illegal.
Well, steady on a minute. I share the general abhorrence of all normal people towards any positive invocation of that horror. I do think that Nazis should be, as a general rule, punched. But there’s a bit to think about here before we resort to outlawing the cause of our discomfort.
A number of European countries have very strict laws prohibiting the public display of Nazi symbols and memorabilia. These include Germany, Austria and France. The authorities in Germany work very hard to stamp down on any recrudescence of Nazism, and the outright banning of its visual representations is an important weapon in that unceasing effort.
Zero tolerance is an understandable prophylactic in the place where this evil found its fullest expression and was only defeated by external force.
At the other end of the scale, you could wear a swastika-emblazoned dress to the Met Gala in New York without fear of arrest (although there’d be a good chance of an egging). America’s First Amendment preserves free speech to the max so there’s little to stop torch-bearing neo-Nazis getting geared up in full regalia.
Historically, Australia has tended more towards the American position than the European when it comes to the regulation of imagery. That is to say, we’ve been pretty relaxed about it — but not because of any constitutional protection (there’s none) or a genuine philosophical preference for freedom. In truth, it’s just never been enough of a problem to worry about.
In living memory, the only issue of concern we’ve had here with symbolism has been, ironically, the transformation — championed by successive Liberal prime ministers — of the Australian flag from unloved neo-colonial relic to its present status as an aggressive icon of nationalistic (white) mate-hood and the spirit of the Anzacs who did not fight under it.
But there is the reason for pause.
The Australian flag was the symbol of the Cronulla riots and a series of awful incidents at Manly Beach around the same time. It has been co-opted for the politics of division, worn on dog-whistlers’ lapels and wrapped around more actual violence than any other flag or emblem has been in Australia’s history.
But nobody wants to ban the Australian flag — even those of us who don’t particularly like it.
The symbols of Nazism have caused no such social violence in this country.
The context for European laws is very different: that is where the Nazis invaded, ruled and acted out their genocidal desires. Europe has a visceral collective memory of that experience, and good reasons to make specific protective laws in response.
Of course, Australian servicemen and women fought in the war against the Nazis. It is fair to say that Australia stood and stands against everything that Nazism means — all of it. We should maintain no tolerance for its revival, although we aren’t nearly as vigilant as I’d prefer.
It is also a mistake to adopt the position that Nazis should be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. Nazis have no place in the civil world at all. There is no argument to be had with that brand of depravity.
But to understand all that as a justification for more law is to miss the point.
If Australia’s drift to the authoritarian, racist right continues on its present trajectory, then we are stuffed anyway and a ban on Nazi flags won’t make the slightest difference.
If there’s to be hope for a turn away from our governments’ police-state impulses and back towards the honouring of personal freedom, then we need to push always in that direction. Even when it feels uncomfortable.
Let Cheryl fly the flag of her bigotry. She’s only marking her own social demise.
But listen to her? No. Nazis have nothing to say that the world hasn’t heard, and suffered, before.
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