Jun 26, 2015 · 7 minutes

Yesterday, Apple began removing iPhone games featuring the Confederate flag from its online store. That followed announcements by Amazon and eBay that they too had banned the Dixie flag from sale. 

All this flag banning, of course, is a response to the murder of nine people in a South Carolina church by Dylann Roof who was pictured online holding the flag. Or, more precisely, it’s a response to the social media outcry that followed the revelation -- to much of he rest of the country, at least -- that South Carolina was still flying the flag over its state capitol. 

The law of Internet outrage compels me at this point to make clear that I do not own, and have never owned, a Confederate flag. As I child I did have a die cast model of the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee but I was careful to only play with it ironically. My "Yeeeee-Haaa!’s” were lackluster at best. The fact that Roof’s sickening crime has prompted the lawmakers of South Carolina to declare they no longer want their state to be defined by a racist flag is, we can all agree, a positive first step. (Ideally the state will also urgently clarify its opposition to spelling “Dylann” with two n’s, but let’s not run before we can walk.)

With those disclaimers out the way, there’s plenty that makes me uncomfortable about the ban.  

It’s one thing for an elected body to make a political statement by removing a flag, and quite another for some of the country’s biggest retailers to deny customers the same choice.

To understand the difference, consider the First Amendment shitstorm that would follow any attempt by the government to ban citizens from owning a flag. It took a Supreme Court decision — just last week, by coincidence — to decide that individual states could chose whether to allow Confederate flags or any other particular symbols or messages on their state-issued license plates. Even then, the justices made clear the decision had nothing to do with race, or about endorsing a particular political message.  

As every Internet comment bore will tell you, there’s no such thing as the First Amendment for private companies. If eBay and Amazon want to ban the Confederate flag from sale, they can. And they did. If Apple decides that Civil War reenactment games are a menace, but that flags are A-OK in books and on the front of country music CDs, that’s peachy too. Don’t try to find a legal, or even logical, explanation for why eBay, despite a published policy on banning Nazi memorabilia, still offers page after page of Nazi gold coins and SS badges for sale — or why Swastikas are verboten on Amazon but Jeff Bezos will gladly sell you a copy of Mein Kampf in hardback, paperback, or for your Kindle.  Don’t consider for even a second why the ban only seems to cover products that only a tiny number of people ever buy. The important thing is the press release: Good old Amazon! Yay, eBay! And well done all of us for another successful Twitter mob! 

The chilling effects of the country’s largest retailers banning a flag should be obvious to anyone with half a functioning brain. The precedent is now set: the government can guarantee our right to free expression, but it’s a few thousand angry tweeters who have the final say. Thank God Twitter wasn’t around when Mark Chapman shot John Lennon while carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye. 

* * * *

As a Brit living in the US, I’m inclined to stay clear of the debate. It’s your silly racist icon, not mine. On the other hand, you yanks don’t realize how lucky you are to have a special flag, just for racists and crazies.

You know where you are with the Confederate flag: If you see a politician waving one, you can bet your Ron Paul commemorative gold coin that you’re dealing with a kook. If you see a house flying the rebel flag, you can be reasonably certain that the homeowner takes special care to always include the “Hussein” in Barrack Hussein Obama. Proud southerners can huff and puff at this generalization, but the polls agree with me: A 2013 YouGov survey found that 24% of Americans considered the flag to be primarily a racist symbol (when limited to just Democrats, the percentage jumps to 43%)

In the UK, by contrast, racists don’t have a flag of their own. Rather, they have claimed ownership of both the Union Jack and England's flag of Saint George. This causes Brits no end of stress and consternation over when and where and how enthusiastically we’re allowed to wave our own bloody flags. 

Things were much simpler back in the 20s and 30s when racists, anti-semites and other dickwads all marched under the British Union of Fascists flag: a red, white and blue banner featuring a lightning flash, not unlike the double SS insignia later used by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel. Post-1945, the fascist flag, and fascism generally, became somewhat déclassé in Britain. Likewise, armbands and jackboots. 

Strangely enough, getting rid of their flags didn’t actually force Britain’s racists to change their ways. Rather, they decided to co-opt Britain’s national flag — the Union Jack — as their new icon. This was made easier by the fact that the Union Jack was already being shunned by British liberals as a symbol of British imperialism; and, as the Guardian put it, “white British feet on black and brown throats.” 

By the 1970s, the Union Jack had come to stand for many of the same repugnant views that the Confederate flag does in modern America. For a couple of decades, the red and white flag of Saint George became a safer choice — favored by British Asians who couldn’t quite rally around the Union Jack, and also flown proudly by football fans of all races during the Euro 96 football finals. Eventually, though, the St George too was co-opted by the racists, becoming the official symbol of the anti-immigration English Defence League and the neo-Nazi National Front. This despite the awkward fact that Saint George was born in Palestine. 

Today, many proud Englishers are rightly nervous about flying their national flag lest they be mistaken for racists. You’ll no more likely see a mainstream English politician wearing a Saint George flag on his lapel than you’ll find him sporting a pointy white hood. In fact, the latest available poll found the percentage of English people who considered their national flag to be inherently racist was… 24%, the exact same as the percentage of Americans who feel that way about the Confederate flag. And yet, the Saint George remains the official symbol of the English football team: making it almost an act of treason not to fly it on important international match days. But heaven help you if you accidentally fly it on non-match days, you vile bigot. 

In America, there are no such blurred lines. You have very wisely settled on one flag for the racists and another for everyone else. One of the things I love most about America is the pride with which citizens of all race, creed and hue gather around the star spangled banner. Even my immigrant heart swells when I look from my window in downtown San Francisco — hardly a hotbed of nationalism — and see at least a dozen American flags flying from the top of office buildings.

The Confederate flag, by contrast, is almost exclusively reserved for the use of a small and dwindling group of mainly white, mainly southern, mainly men whose sense of national identity was fixed a hundred or so years before they were born. 

As the events of last week reminded us, if you’re looking for the crazy racist in any given room, a good place to start is the guy waving a literal red flag. If Amazon, eBay and the rest really want to do something good for the world, they'd make it easier for crazies to stand out, not harder. Free Confederate flags for all who want to carry them! 

Take it from a Brit, it’s far better to let racists get their hands on their own flag than to have them grab yours.