Controversy over public display of the Confederate flag has flared up again recently. Even in liberal Oregon someone put one up at a privately owned cooperative residence, in a window clearly visible from the nearby Oregon State University Black Cultural Center. The OSU student newspaper recently fulminated about this flag for a whole page. Nobody called for outlawing its display, though some would probably like to. But while reading their comments, I got an idea.
Although banning the Confederate flag would violate the First Amendment, it would be legal, possible, and highly satisfying to destroy its usefulness for white supremacists. This could be done while leaving it intact as a symbol for those who just want to remember history or their great-grandfather.
Expressions originally intended to disparage or humiliate some person, group, or idea have sometimes been taken up by the intended targets as a badge of pride to describe themselves or their ideas. Some of these words include Yankee, suffragette, Jesuit, queer, prime minister, Methodist, and Obamacare (as shorthand for the Affordable Care Act).
Neatly turning the tables should work equally well with physical symbols. Organizations combating racism could formally embrace the Confederate flag as a symbol reminding people of the terrible things done to black people by slave traders and plantation owners, largely in areas which rebelled against the federal government under that very flag. Just as Christians adopted the cross, the especially cruel and humiliating method employed by Rome to execute Jesus, as a vital symbol, so too could people urging the brotherhood and sisterhood of all Americans appropriate the Confederate flag as their symbol.
Just imagine: Black and white and other Americans marching forward arm in arm under the Confederate banner and holding up mutually reinforcing signs proclaiming that "Black lives matter!" and "All lives matter, and we do mean all!"
Cultural appropriation isn't always bad!
Our history has included many slogans reminding us about some enemy: "Remember the Alamo!" "Remember the Maine!" " Remember Pearl Harbor!" The Confederate flag, if appropriated by people protesting racism, could be a reminder, too: "Remember slavery!" "Remember how a large group of human beings was considered property and treated like animals!"
If civil rights supporters appropriate the Confederate flag and turn it to their own purposes, it will destroy its utility for white supremacists seeking to express racial hostility. Bigots will fear to display it, fearing that fellow bigots might think they are endorsing legal equality and humane treatment of all people. Ideally, white supremacists might become unable to bear the sight of this flag.
Understandably, black Americans might hesitate to associate themselves with this flag. But their pain would be temporary, mitigated by understanding the permanent frustration that will be felt by bigots who no longer can use this symbol. Stealing a powerful symbol from those who would keep them down should have strong appeal.
Some of my best ideas have been stimulated by people who had no intention of doing any such thing. A comment by the arch-reactionary Ayn Rand, for example, convinced me that in an ideal economy all land and other natural resources would be owned by the public rather than privately or by government. It would be ironic if the person who displayed this flag at Oregon State University is remembered for setting off events which destroyed that flag as a racist symbol.