We have seen corporations give in to pressure from the left and even enthusiastically join in progressive campaigns before. Nike’s decision to disassociate itself from the Betsy Ross flag nonetheless seems to me to break new ground.
One of the hallmarks of “woke” culture is the redefinition of previously uncontroversial parts of our national life as unacceptably bigoted or oppressive. The term itself implies a self-congratulation at having awoken to the insidious ubiquity of — I was tempted to write “sin,” but you get the idea. If you prize that kind of epiphany, you’ll be looking for new reasons to perform the taking of offense. Thus the process of redefinition has a tendency to accelerate in speed and scope.
Even so, the shift of the Betsy Ross flag, from worth showcasing for the Obama inaugural planners in 2013 to unacceptable for a big company in 2019, has been very quick. That timeline actually downplays how quick it has been: It was nearly instantaneous. The vast majority of people hearing about this controversy, including me, had never previously been exposed to the idea that there was anything malevolent about the flag.
And even as specimens of woke culture go, this one also stands out for the tenuousness of the connection between the newly unacceptable thing and the evil it is supposed to represent. Nobody supposes that the flag was meant to symbolize slavery or that most people think of slavery when they see it. It is closer to a statue of George Washington than to one of Jefferson Davis, assuming that anyone is still interested in making distinctions; but with respect to slavery the flag is more innocent than either man. Some white supremacists may think the flag stands for their beliefs. They are wrong about a lot of things, and should be indulged neither in their errors nor their campaigns to conquer symbols.
The role Nike has played also breaks new ground. As I mentioned, we have seen companies tag along in progressive campaigns. Sometimes conservatives will lament that business leaders or other respected figures have given in to a left-wing mob. This time, Nike basically was the mob. Will it be a blip or a portent?