You may have noticed many people at rallies of the Tea Party waving a bright yellow flag with a snake on it and the words, "Don't Tread on Me" emblazoned on it. It's a flag that's known as the Gadsden Flag, a version of which was the first to fly over the ships assembled by the Continental Congress in 1775 to counter British blockades of the American colonies. Designed by Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, who was appointed by the Congress to be the first commander-in-chief of the navy, the yellow standard that we see today was adopted by many fighting units during the War of Independence, becoming by default one of the first flags of what became The United States of America in 1776. It flew at many of the battles of the southern campaign of the war, including battles at which my American ancestors fought and, sometimes, died for the cause of our national independence.
The flag took on new significance after September 11, 2001, when ships of our Navy began to fly the original naval version, a symbol of our unity in the face of an attack on our nation. But with the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009. the use of the flag seems to have drifted away from its original use as a symbol of fundamental American unity. Instead, it has been adopted by protesters and activists who are seeking to derail efforts by the Democratic party to move forward with health care reform and other Federal government initiatives. In particular, the Tea Party has been embraced by the people behind the Sarah Palin candidacy for Vice President in 2008 - or, perhaps, created by them, initially as a media prop staged by familiar operatives of the Republican Party and eventually mining a sentiment of Anti-government frustration amongst so-called "independent" voters.
The association of Sarah Palin with the Tea Party movement is no accident. With John Birch Society roots and a husband who was active in Alaska's secessionist movement, Palin's rebel image appeals to many of the people who might be putting Confederate battle flag images on their vehicles or clothes and who would have otherwise flown those flags at Tea Party rallies. But of course the Confederate flag would never do as a symbol for a "cause" that was supposed to be a nationwide protest movement. So, cleverly, the media and marketing geniuses who cooked up the Tea Party movement came up with a ready substitute - the Gadsden flag, a symbol of pride from the south that just happens to have been created in the first state to secede from the United States in January 1861, almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery,was sworn in. The Confederate battle flag began to be flown atop the South Carolina state capitol building in 1962, interpreted widely as a symbol of protest against the emerging civil rights movement by that state's legislators.
The Gadsden flag is flown widely and vigorously at many tea party rallies, as vigorously as the Confederate flag has been flown in recent decades at many right-wing rallies and marches of the Ku Klux Klan. The differing design and the unifying history of the flag, however, is just a smoke screen for a group of people who are more interested in destroying or seceding from a United States based on equal rights to all of its citizens than it is a symbol of true patriotism. It is used to soften the media coverage of people spitting at black members of Congress who are only seeking to do their job as elected representatives of American citizens. It is used to conceal other KKK-like tactics of intimidation against Democratic members of Congress and even, most sadly, against their family members.
Most sadly of all, though, this is all quite intentional. When the Republican Party lost its bid for the White House in 1964, slowly but surely Richard Nixon worked his way back into the circles of power with a plan to take it back. The plan was based on devising subtle ways for people to express their fears and concerns about racial equality without having to have the Republican Party itself appear to be racist. Thus was born Nixon's "Silent Majority," a way for Americans who would have otherwise been a part of FDR's New Deal coalition to consider Republicans as an alternative based on "family values," "law and order" and other code words that made it easier for people to vote against their economic and social interest. The formula has been adjusted through the years, but the goal has remained the same: get white voters in Southern and Midwest states, and other states, when feasible, to assert their nationalism based on white racial pride. Thus the "Southern Strategy" became the backbone for Republican domination of the White House, and, eventually, Congress.
But now the tables are beginning to turn. The very white Americans to whom Nixon first appealed find themselves in a miserable economy, courtesy of eight years of Presidential misadministration under George W. Bush and more than a decade of Republican domination of Congress and the national media. The Democrats were poised to do something about the enormous economic inequality that had swept up Americans of all races and backgrounds. How to stop this tide? Blame black people, of course. But do it as subtly as possible, preferably without those easily packaged images that would make it appear too obvious that Republicans were yet again trying to turn whites against blacks and "Red States" against "Blue States." Better to turn them on their own government more directly. Better to take some of the racism out of the equation, since many Americans that they were targeting did not share the same legacy of Southern states. Better to make people think that they were rebels with a secessionist cause without the Confederate baggage, while having a secret signal to Southerners, the Gadsden flag, that would serve to them just as well as the Confederate flag, with most other people just nodding their heads. It's the "Silent Majority" turned radical, a subtle Nixonian twist of the minds that Republicans have been twisting for decades.
I love this nation's heritage and my family's part in it and I fly many of the American flags under which family members have fought at various times of the year. But I find it very sad that I cannot fly the Gadsden flag any more, given the symbolism that has been foisted upon it by the Tea Baggers. Shame on them for desecrating one of the most important national symbols that we have in this nation. If you love this nation and the people who fought and died to make it a nation, you will retire this enduring symbol from its corrupt political use and return it to its glory as a symbol of a unified nation willing to do whatever it takes to protect both our liberties and our rights as free and equal citizens of The United States of America.