Misappropriation of colors


Since the emergence of the Tea Party several years ago, one major symbol of the movement has been the Gadsden Flag, a coiled rattlesnake on a gold field with the inscription “Don’t Tread On Me.” Another flag used by the movement is the First Navy Jack, the current jack flown by the United States Navy. Both flags originated during the American Revolution in connection with the newly-formed Navy.
I do not take issue with the fact that organizations adopt historically significant flags and symbols; however, I dispute the method of justification which some people use in adorning their cause with the Gadsden colors.
Upon an attack on the contemporary use of the Gadsden Flag, those flying it often defend their actions by citing the story of Samuel Gadsden, his service to the Continental forces and his role in the establishment of the Navy specifically and the Revolution generally. This justification effectively grafts the motives and political views of the Continental Army and Congress onto the political rallies and incendiary rhetoric of conservative movements. Moreover, such a defense also implicitly equates the United States government with the British Empire and King George at the time of the Revolution. That contemporary groups adopt the Gadsden Flag does not mean that their struggles are on the same scale as the 18th-century rebels of the Thirteen Colonies, or that our current politically legitimate and representative government is a guise for King George.
More commonly misappropriated is the Confederate battle flag, which is consistently and incorrectly referred to as the “Stars and Bars.” Besides its use in protests by segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s, the Confederate battle flag has been adopted as a symbol of Southern pride. Again, I do not argue that the right to fly such a flag should not be protected.
The flag should not be flown merely because it represents, among other things, an illegitimate, irrelevant and nonexistent government, an attitude of disunity, and the oppression of racial minorities in American history.
We need to be careful in choosing symbols to represent our causes and ideologies. Our colors are capable of saying something about our causes, but also about our opponents’ positions, as well as the degree to which we regard ourselves as reasonable and our detractors as respectable.

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