Nike is doing it wrong.
I don’t mean the shoemaking, though that thing with Zion Williamson was pretty bad, I have to say.
No, Nike is doing it wrong because it managed to do something that all the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, alt-righters and other denizens of the lowest coprophagic phylum of our political life could never do: It turned the Betsy Ross flag into a racist symbol.
By now you’ve probably heard that Nike decided to take the advice of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who ignited so much controversy by refusing to stand for the national anthem. Nike was all set to release a line of sneakers for the Fourth of July featuring the original Betsy Ross American flag with 13 stars in a circle.
According to reports, Kaepernick took offense because a handful of extremist groups like to brandish the original American flag to make some sort of point about something no one should care about. (I gather it has something to do with how this was “their” country before the federal government was formed. Or maybe, like many gibbons, they just like the sparkly stars and bright colors.)
The thing is, most Americans — and when I say most, I mean, like, nearly all of them — had no idea white supremacists were doing this. In countless news stories, reporters contacted experts who either didn’t know about it or were only vaguely aware that this is one of the things these groups like to wear as capes during dress-up time.
“If all these historians didn’t know [the relationship between white supremacy and the Betsy Ross flag], then Nike shouldn’t be expected to know it,” Mary Beth Norton, an American history professor at Cornell University, told CNBC.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has a database with more than 150 “hate symbols.” The Betsy Ross flag isn’t among them.
“The Betsy Ross flag is a common historical flag,” Mark Pitcavage of the ADL told CNBC. While it’s been used by white supremacists “from time to time,” he has “never once thought about” adding the Betsy Ross flag to the list.
Nonetheless, it’s true that if you search through enough old photos of Klan rallies and neo-Nazi pageants, you can spot a Betsy Ross flag from time to time.
Do you know what else you can probably spot if you look long and hard enough? Nike sneakers. Does that make Nikes symbols of white supremacy?
Of course not. But what if these groups started wearing T-shirts with the Nike “swoosh” on them?
Frankly, I think it would be a brilliant move by these hate groups to do just that. Nike would freak out, giving these attention-seekers a bonanza in free publicity.
Innocuous or even noble symbols can be appropriated for evil purposes. The swastika is an ancient symbol in various Asian cultures. It was adopted in Europe as a symbol of good luck until the Nazis made it their own. The KKK’s pointy hoods may have been inspired by the Catholic capirote of medieval Spain and Portugal, which looks dismayingly similar.
But here’s the thing: When evil people acquire symbols for their own ends, the only guarantee of success is when everyone else validates the acquisition.
If Nike had gone ahead with the special-edition sneakers, it would have been, in marketing terms, the equivalent of Godzilla versus Bambi. A few neo-Nazis and a few more social justice warriors would have complained, and everyone else would have gone about their day totally unconcerned.
Instead, Nike followed the advice of a man whose business model is to stir grievance and controversy for its own sake. Suddenly, millions of people who once thought the Betsy Ross flag was just an admirable bit of Americana now associate it with hate groups. Worse, other entirely decent and patriotic Americans will now likely start brandishing the flag to offend people who, until recently, had no idea some hate groups adopted the flag in the first place.
The ranks of the perpetually offended will misread this trolling-to-own-the-libs effort as an endorsement of hate speech, and the culture war will have yet another idiotic fight on its hands, and a symbol of the country’s founding that should be a uniting image for all Americans will now be reduced to a weapon in that war.
Thanks a lot, Nike.
Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, “Suicide of the West,” is now available wherever books are sold. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.