(ABOVE: The Gadsden Flag flies proudly in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ)
by Christopher M. Halleron
Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
Their walls are built of cannonballs,
Their motto is “Don’t Tread On Me”…
– The Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band”
It has been said that when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in a flag. The big question now is which flag they choose to wrap it in.
With the utmost of due respect for the Star-Spangled Banner, as a student of American history I have always had an affinity for the Gadsden Flag—known in most circles as the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Ever since the Marines mustered under the banner in 1775, it has come into its own as a lasting symbol of America’s intended mission, evoking to many the true libertarian ethos of this country’s fledgling salad days, when the unmuddied message of the American idealism said live and let live; but that no one will provoke us with impunity.
Let’s face it—it’s a cool flag. I’ve always liked its brazen simplicity, essentially a political cartoon transformed into an evocative standard. Of course the coiled rattlesnake is really the key to the image. While field mice may have a slightly different opinion, by and large the rattlesnake possesses a coy defiance–ever-vigilant, but reactive only when provoked.
Throughout its history, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag has meant a lot of things to a wide range of people. Obviously all branches of the United States Armed Forces community firmly embrace the flag’s message—and why shouldn’t they, considering they’re the ones who are ready to sink the fangs should we be tread upon. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, I recall once seeing the flag flying high at a Grateful Dead concert—perhaps as a superficial nod to the lyrics of “Uncle John’s Band,” or perhaps with a deeper meaning.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I draped “Don’t Tread on Me” across my Hoboken fire escape, which faced in the direction of the then-smoldering World Trade Center. To me it captured the essence of the moment, expressing my staid anger at the audacious affront to my county and a desire for swift and conclusive justice.
But in more recent times it seems as though the flag itself has been hijacked. The so-called “Tea Party” realized it needed a symbol with a bit more resonance than a bag of Tetley hanging off a tri-corner hat. And despite having no clear objective, the hastily assembled militia decided to rally under my beloved Gadsden Flag.
Well I miss the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, likely in the same way that Jesse Jackson misses rainbows or Hindus miss the Swastika. What was once a benign and benevolent banner for many has been pirated by the agenda-driven to become a polarizing symbol of agitation, and I for one find it disheartening to have to distance myself from it.
The Tea Party is to the right-wing what the Deadheads were to the left—little more than fringe extremists whose failure to grasp the practical application of their principles makes them emblematic of such an agenda’s ineffectiveness. As opposed to the coiled rattlesnake, the Tea Party appears more in line with a rampaging cobra, spewing venom on all who dare cross its path. Meanwhile the irony should not be lost that a banner created by those who immigrated to America in search of liberty is now waved by those in rabid opposition of immigration.
Within the Tea Party, there is an idea—one that has been irreparably obscured by smoke and mirrors. There’s an obvious yearning for populist representation in our political system, as there are many Americans who would, in fact, like to be left alone by their swollen, tax-hungry government. But the Tea Party’s focus has become more on the venom and less on the rattle, with opportunistic talking heads riding the rising tide while the foundation is left to wallow in the morass.
Meanwhile it was nice to see “Don’t Tread on Me” return to wider acceptance during USA Soccer’s recent World Cup run. Without a doubt, it’s an invigorating symbol of America’s determination, and it would be nice to see it restored its less-antagonistic form.
Of course that would leave the Tea Party in need of a banner to rally under. Given the amount of hot air and their complete lack of direction, perhaps the most appropriate suggestion would be a windsock.
Christopher M. Halleron is the Publisher/Editor of hMAG.
As a columnist and journalist, he has covered various aspects of life here in the ‘greater Hoboken area’ and beyond for the past two decades.
His opinions are his own.