What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?

by Jim Geraghty

Hey, anything big happen while I was gone last week?

The first Jim-written Morning Jolt in a week features a couple of tough questions about what, exactly, Steve Bannon brought to the White House; Great Britain encounters a snag in the Brexit process, and why proud Southerners need a unifying symbol beyond the Confederate Flag. On that last point:

What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?

Every time I write about the Confederate flag or “Confederaphilia,” a few readers respond that I just don’t understand, that I can’t understand because I’m not a native Southerner, that I should keep my Yankee mouth shut, etcetera. (This argument is, of course, an embrace of identity politics, not a rejection of it.)

Assume for a moment that there are people who want to express pride in their Southern heritage or honor their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and who do not want to endorse racism or slavery.

What do you do when a hate group suddenly decides to adopt one of your preferred symbols? Over the years, white supremacist groups have adopted several symbols that aren’t immediately connected to racism, such as Celtic crosses (crosses in circles), Thor’s hammer, and the number 88. Wiser anti-hate groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, are quick to point out that none of these symbols are, by themselves, indications of support for hate groups, and advises everyone to examine their contexts closely to avoid false accusations. Nonetheless, hearing this can be a little unnerving for fans of Celtic Christian art, the Marvel comics superhero, or NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. There’s a deliberate desire on the part of hate groups to take seemingly innocuous symbols and turn them into secret signals of belief, only recognized by other members of the club.

If you’re really into waving the Confederate flag and don’t want to endorse white supremacy or racism, you have an increasingly serious problem, because even if you’re the least racist person in the world, a lot of openly racist people have embraced that flag as their symbol. At some point, non-racist proud Southerners may need to let that symbol of regional pride go and adopt another one. How about a flag depicting a bowl of grits?

And then there was Charlottesville display of people marching with the Nazi flag, alongside the Confederate flag. 

Once the Nazi flag appeared, no one could plausibly argue that the gathering in Charlottesville was aimed at preserving history or battling political correctness run amok. Everyone who marched alongside that Nazi flag was endorsing what the swastika represents. If disagree with that statement, try to imagine a scenario where you would willingly march alongside a Nazi flag.

This is why it’s so outrageous to hear the President of the United States insisting that the clash in Charlottesville “had some very fine people on both sides.”

No, it didn’t. Once you’re marching alongside the Nazi flag, you’re not a good person anymore.

If those Confederate statues are to remain standing, it will require a better argument than what we have now. Charlottesville demonstrated that keeping the statues is important to American Nazis. (Non-metaphorical Nazis! The term has been so overused in overwrought political arguments it’s hard to grasp we’re talking about actual, Seig-Heil-ing, Nazi-saluting, goose-stepping morons!) If American Nazis want those statues to keep standing, that’s a really strong argument to take them down. If those statues have become a rallying point and symbol for those who disagree with nearly all of America’s values – the rule of law, equality in the eyes of the law, pluralism, the right to vote, the right to free speech – then they have no place in public squares, public parks and courthouses, etcetera.

There seems to be this insistence that to denounce the marchers in Charlottesville is to somehow endorse the violence of the “Antifa” movement, as if this is binary, and we must approve of one side of this fight. This is ridiculous. Life often gives us two bad choices. Think of the Eastern front on World War Two, the Iran-Iraq War, or the choice between tanking your season or losing the highest-round draft pick.

The marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” It’s hard to believe Donald Trump is an anti-Semite; few anti-Semites are at peace with their daughter converting to Judaism and marrying a Jew. But why did that chant and the Charlottesville neo-Nazis not seem to anger him? Trump is a man who is capable of lashing out at Megyn Kelly, Mika Bryzenski, or John McCain with ferocious fury; why did he not bring a comparable fury at those who marched alongside the banner of the Fuhrer? Is it that he simply can’t get that angry at people who aren’t insulting him personally, but merely insulting America’s ideals? Or is it as simple has he thinks many of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and elsewhere voted for him, and he fears losing their support?

In the latter half of last week, America’s political press debated whether Charlottesville represented a tipping point for the Trump presidency or point of no return. One thing is clear for anyone who wants to morally or politically remain aligned with this presidency: If Trump can foul up a moment that required him to simply denounce people marching under the Nazi flag, then he is capable of fouling up anything.

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