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Are flags additive?

[ by Charles Camerondelicate matters here, please discuss with civility — not civil war ]

Are flags, as symbolic statements, additive?

I ask this because of three flags whose valences seem to differ considerably, depending on who is viewing them.

Gadsden flag flies over every post at ChicagoBoyz, where myself, Zen. Lex and other ZP friends sometimes post, and I don’t believe the ChicagoBoyz approve of racism, so though it may connote a right-leaning position on small government, it’s meaning if carried beyond that would seem to be up for individual grabs.

Consider this New Yorker piece entitled The Shifting Symbolism of the Gadsden Flag:

In recent years, the Gadsden flag has become a favorite among Tea Party enthusiasts, Second Amendment zealots—really anyone who gets riled up by the idea of government overreach. It’s also been appropriated to promote U.S. Soccer and streetwear brands. And this reflects a deeper question, one that’s actually pretty compelling: How do we decide what the Gadsden flag, or indeed any symbol, really means?

One answer involves history. The Gadsden flag is one of at least three kinds of flags created by independence-minded colonists in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, according to the writer and historian Marc Leepson, the author of “Flag: An American Biography.” Liberty flags featured that word on a variety of backdrops; the Pine Tree flag floated the slogan “An Appeal To Heaven” over a depiction of a pine tree. Neither endured like the design of Christopher Gadsden, a Charleston-born brigadier general in the Continental Army. His was by far the coolest, with its menacing rattler and provocative slogan.


“The origins of ‘Don’t Tread On Me,’ “ Leepson summarizes, “were completely, one hundred percent anti-British, and pro-revolution.” Indeed, that E.E.O.C. directive agrees, “It is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context.”

Good. I’m a Brit, but I can handle an anti-British flag, even if I’m nursing the wounds of loss of Empire.

Volokh picks up the tale:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.

Hey, the New Yorker is right — the Gadsden flag does indeed have “Shifting Symbolism”.


What about this one?

One version of the Confederate flag draws a clear and significant distinction — once again showing that “flag meanings” may vary:


As someone who is interested in symbolism, and also in what Bakhtin terms heteroglossia, and what I think of (assuming we’re after roughly the same beast) as the counterpoint of ideas, I’m fascinated when these two flags are brought together in a third. I saw this one illustrated in a report in thre Daily Mail titled:

Crews wearing masks, bulletproof vests and helmets remove statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from New Orleans

Here’s a better image of the flag itself:

Are the two flags additive? I’d be interested to see a fuzzy-logic Venn diagram of the overlap of meanings between Gadsden and Confederate flags.

Is there a single correct interpretation of any of the three flags (Gadsden, Confederate, & Gadsden-Confederate) that are my topic here?

How would we even decide?


I’m aware that this is a delicate topic, and would request civil responses from both sides of the aisle, both sides of the police barrier, you know what I mean. As a Brit, again, I can benefit from exposure to views of different (stars and) stripes.

8 Responses to “Are flags additive?”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    The Gadsden Flag was the flag of the Southern backcountry, often not slave owning, against the British. Mixing it up with the Confederate battle flag is unhistorical and misleading. The Tea Party often had Gadsden Flag symbolism. I sometimes wore a crossed US flag and Gadsden Flag to events. It is part of the vicious, ongoing defamation of the Tea Party that people tried to say everything we did was racist. Nope.

  2. carl Says:

    Charles the most interesting part of you post isn’t the topic of flags, symbolism and the changes therein. Pondering those sorts of things are what intellectually inclined old men like us (or rather you, I’m just old) while away the time with. No, the most interesting part is you saw the need to start and end your post with a plea not to let a verbal punch up commence. It is very telling that even in this little corner of the virtual world, where to my recollection everybody has always behaved well, the first and last thing you think of when posting is the possibility of really nasty conflict. And that is here in a pretend world. It the real world would you even try to print up and distribute some fliers announcing a discussion of this topic at a local venue? If you did it would only be after some hard thought about the possibility of, and in many cities the certainty of physical violence. Things are not pretty right now.
    You mentioned civil war as a throwaway line. It think things may be closer to that nightmare than we realize. I’ve thought that for several years now ever since I read articles pointing out how political positions seem to be lining up regionally. Anyway I have a story to tell about the possibility of real conflict developing too. I was at a Trump rally post-election several months ago. There were maybe 5oo people there. About 40-60 of the Berkeley types appeared in their black clothes, balaclavas and bandanas over their faces. They formed up about a block away and moved toward us in a group. As if by magic cops by the scores showed up, kept the groups separated and the scene remained calm. But if the cops hadn’t showed up there would have been a real street battle. The people on my side of the police line were itching for it. If the officers had not been there….
    What we are seeing developing before our eyes troubles me greatly.

  3. Grurray Says:

    Equating the Gadsden flag with racism is part of a broader effort to deny the existence of the Scotch-Irish, such as in historian Nancy Isenberg’s book White Trash. A heritage that consists of poverty, subsistence, struggle, and diaspora rather than deviant feudal lords doesn’t fit the ‘white privilege’ narrative. The narrative insists the United States was formed to defend and perpetuate the institution of slavery, and the supposed white monoculture responsible must retreat from political activity and pay restitution. This is obviously wrong as the Civil War proved. Just the existence of West Virginia is enough to explode that theory.
    The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, on the other hand, was a symbol of defending slavery. Its display was rare after the civil war. It only had a resurgence later to counter the post-war civil rights movement. In some circles it is now seen to be representative of southern culture. This makes the same mistake as the Reparationistas for different reasons. They want to pretend that the culture doesn’t exist in a vain attempt to cure history’s perceived ills, while some Southern and Appalachian Folk want to forget it in a vain attempt to cure their own ills. Those who fly the Confederate banner bury their real culture under a veneer of revisionism because they can’t bring themselves to be proud of a past filled with difficulty and discord.

  4. Joel Sammallahti Says:

    What a juxtaposition in that second image: the flag, and a shirt with the text Brotherhood of Snakes and the image of a triple serpent.

  5. Joel Sammallahti Says:

    Fourth image, I meant. And I mangled the text too. Anyway.

  6. Kelly Says:

    Symbolism is by nature subjective.

    When I look at the stars and bars, I see a battle flag from an army that killed thousands and thousands of US Army servicemen, to defend slavery as a social institution. I’m not a fan.

    I find these two themes (killers of US army troops, defenders of slavery) so powerful that I can’t overlook them when combined with other imagery.

    If you add a drop of sewage to a barrel of wine, you get a barrel of sewage. The sewage ruins anything good that might have been in the wine.

    That’s how I feel about the stars and bars.

  7. zen Says:

    The Gadsden flag was never considered racist until circa 2015 when an Obama apparatchik attempted to suggest it was so, largely because it was an antigovernment symbol adopted by many of Obama’s grassroots Tea Party critics. It’s a variation of a colonial era flag and also of the US Navy Jack flag:

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, all.
    I am particularly grateful to Carl for his perceptive comment. When I tweeted an announcement of this post, I invited comment from people who might be expected to have strongly felt and strongly divergent views, hence my care to begin and close with a request for courtesy. And were we not enjoying Zenpundit’s hospitality here, where as Carl says, “everybody has always behaved well,” I might well not have posted at all.
    My gratitude, then, to all ZP commenters, and to Zenpundit / Mark himself.

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