In January of 2014, one African-American maintain mechanic because that the United says Postal service in Denver filed a complaint charging that he had actually been subjected to racial discrimination. Specifically, together a current Equal Employment chance Commission filing on the issue put it, among the masculine co-workers “repeatedly wore a cap to occupational with one insignia the the Gadsden Flag.” The cap style in question involves a coiled rattlesnake end the phrase “DON’T TREAD ~ above ME,” against a yellow background. You’ve checked out it.

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How carry out we decision what the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, or indeed any type of symbol, really means?Photograph by attracted Angerer / The new York time / Redux
The Postal business dismissed the complaint. But, this summer, the decision was reversed through the E.E.O.C., which, after some procedural back-and-forth, ordered the firm to investigate the matter. Eugene Volokh, a professor in ~ the U.C.L.A. Institution of Law, carried this come the public’s attention through the Volokh Conspiracy, his legal-affairs blog ~ above the Washington Posts web site. Observers that a details ideological bent reacted through alarm or outrage: “Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?,” “Government Ruling: attract ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Gadsden Flag deserve to Be racialism & ‘Racial Harassment,’ ” “Obama Administration: ‘Don't Tread on Me’ apparel Are Racist,” and so on.

There was no such critical “ruling,” from the Obama management or anyone else. The E.E.O.C. (which whipped up a devoted page to exactly misreporting approximately “the Gadsden Flag case”) had actually merely called the Postal Service, in long-winded legal terms, to look right into the complaint. However however cooked up the notion that there was some type of commonwealth crackdown ~ above the design, the conflict does allude to miscellaneous real. In recent years, the Gadsden flag has end up being a favorite among Tea Party enthusiasts, 2nd Amendment zealots—really anyone who gets riled up by the idea of government overreach. It’s additionally been appropriated to promote U.S. Soccer and also streetwear brands. And also this mirrors a depths question, one that’s in reality pretty compelling: exactly how do us decide what the Gadsden flag, or indeed any type of symbol, yes, really means?

One answer requires history. The Gadsden flag is among at least three type of flags produced by independence-minded homesteaders in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, according to the writer and also historian Marc Leepson, the author of “Flag: an American Biography.” Liberty flags featured that word ~ above a selection of backdrops; the pine tree Tree flag floated the slogan “An Appeal to Heaven” end a relenten of a pine tree. Neither withstood like the design of Christopher Gadsden, a Charleston-born brigadier general in the continent Army. His was by far the coolest, with its menacing rattler and provocative slogan.

The snake, it transforms out, was something the a Colonial-era meme, evidently originated by Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, Franklin do the satirical pointer that the swarms might repay the Crown for shipping convicts to America by distributing rattlesnakes around England, “particularly in the Gardens the the element Ministers, the Lords the Trade and Members of Parliament; because that to them we are most particularly obliged.” Later, in what might be America’s first-ever political cartoon, Franklin published the famed “Join or Die” image, which depicts the American swarms as segments of a snake. Amongst other borrowers, Paul Revere placed the line in a seventeen-seventies newspaper nameplate. Gadsden’s awful remix, because that a flag used by continent sailors, portrayed the reassembled rattler together a righteous danger to trampling imperialism. “The beginnings of ‘Don’t Tread ~ above Me,’ ” Leepson summarizes, “were completely, one hundreds percent anti-British, and also pro-revolution.” Indeed, that E.E.O.C. Directive agrees, “It is clear the the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary battle in a non-racial context.”

And yet, no symbolic an interpretation is locked in time. At the hazard of proving Godwin’s regulation (which holds that all online discussions work their way to part invocation that Nazis), take into consideration the swastika. A prize of well-being connected with Buddhists for thousands of years, the was provided by advertisement brands and also even occasionally adorned U.S. And also British military aircraft prior to the second World War. But the Nazi regime’s black, white, and red treatment, and its association through anti-Semitism, violence, aggression, hatred, and also death, obliterated the design’s earlier meaning in the West and beyond.

The shift in the swastika’s meaning is, in part ways, an outlier: yes no disputing its ugly symbolism today. (It would likely not be complicated for, say, a Jewish worker to to convince the E.E.O.C. The a colleague’s insistence on attract a swastika lid was proof of harassment.) other symbols imply the fluidity and ambiguity of meaning—and the underground, almost in-group messaging symbols deserve to send. In the at an early stage nineteen-nineties, the Los Angeles Raiders logo design (now the Oakland Raiders), which entails an eye-patched football player and crossed swords, had supposedly been so widely adopted by “street gangs” that numerous schools in the west U.S. Prohibition it because of “the connection in between Raiders gear and gang activity,” according to a Times write-up from that era. An ext recently, a cartoon character referred to as Pepe the Frog, created by the artist Matt Furie together a sort of slacker humanoid amphibian ago in 2005, has been repurposed in shadowy corners that the Internet—maybe ironically, probably not—as a winky price of white nationalism. “Pepe can be used by the alt-right come slyly say ‘I’m among you,’ ” Motherboard explained after Donald Trump, Jr., common a Pepe image on Instagram earlier this month, and also a surprising number of reports, as well as the Hillary Clinton campaign, agreed.

As because that Gadsden’s creation: ~ the Stars and Stripes was adopted as the official flag of the United states (with little fanfare or recorded debate, Leepson notes), the Gadsden design remained other of a Revolutionary relic for countless years. By the nineteen-seventies, it had some popularity in Libertarian circles, together a price of ideology system enthusiasm because that minimal government and also the civil liberties of individuals; over there was tiny mainstream attention in the flag as late as the summer the 2001, as soon as Chris Whitten, who described himself in one e-mail as having actually “a lift in the wider Libertarian movement,” began a web site committed to the background of the flag (and linked merch). Traffic spiked after ~ the September 11th terrorist attacks, Whitten says, and searches (and sales) also climbed together the Tea Party motion emerged. The symbol’s appeal spread out through pop culture, as an all-purpose signifier that swaggering defiance. In 2014, Alabama ended up being the saturday state to approve a specialty license plate with a Gadsden design.

Along the way, it picked up other connotations: strident anti-government sentiment, regularly directed with details vehemence in ~ the first African-American President. Together the E.E.O.C. Gingerly suggested, the symbol is now “sometimes construed to convey racially-tinged message in part contexts,” citing the flag’s removal indigenous a new Haven fire terminal after a black firefighter complained, and also a 2014 incident in which two Las vegas police police officers were killed and their bodies spanned by the flag. (The officers were white, yet the shooters reportedly “spoke that white supremacy” and also “the start of a revolution,” and also were presumably sending out that blog post with the flag.) other skirmishes about the flag’s display, largely focused on the association through the Tea Party, have actually entangled small businesses, homeowners’ associations, and also even an empty building. “People who collect historical flags choose to fly them occasionally,” man M. Hartvigsen, chairman of the north American Vexillological Association, says. However some have shied away from “historical display” that the Gadsden flag because “it have the right to now interact a political emotion that may not be theirs.”

Observers of the Gadsden flag’s resurgence—both pro and also con—frequently end up compare it come the Confederate fight flag. Hartvigsen claims the variation of that flag that we’re familiar with this day was originally supplied by Confederate battle veterans’ groups and the like, and was then embraced by the Ku Klux Klan and also other white supremacists. This association through racial hatred, and the flag’s historical roots together an emblem that a would-be federal government that embraced slavery, has long made the flag attack to many. John Coski, a chronicler who composed the 2005 book “The Confederate battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem,” said in an e-mail the he doubt the flag still has “multiple meanings,” even if defenses involving regional pride and the like have actually been increasingly challenged and marginalized. Coski is mindful that any ambiguity around that flag is unfathomable come those who view its meaning as aggressively racist—and settled. Sentiment against that flag crested last year through the massive shooting in ~ a black color church in Charleston, southern Carolina. The accused murderer, Dylann Roof, was an avowed racialism who had actually photographed himself v the Confederate flag; after the murders, south Carolina removed it indigenous the capitol grounds, and also mainstream retailers favor Walmart and also Amazon stopped marketing merchandise the featured the design.

We have no real context because that what the aggrieved postal worker experienced, or because that the motives of his Gadsden-fan colleague. However however that occurrence is eventually resolved together a matter of rectal regulation, it’s no going to clear up some definitive meaning of the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattler. “Symbols room emotion-charged,” Hartvigsen, the flag expert, said. We care about and analyze them top top a personal level. And that’s why the truth of a symbol’s history and associations have the right to be compiled, documented, and also studied, however they still won’t be the whole story. “Flags really much have actually the an interpretation of the individual that is displaying it, or seeing it,” Hartvigsen continued. An ext significant, those might be 2 wildly divergent, however equally fervent, perspectives. The Gadsden flag is simply the latest example that disagreements and ambiguity perform not threaten the emotional strength of a symbol. Sometimes, in fact, they are its source.

Rob walker is a writer in new Orleans.

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