The terrible murders in South Carolina have sparked a national reaction to the appearance of the Confederate flag at the statehouse in South Carolina and in many other places. Many are calling for the removal of the flag, while others defend it as an important and valuable part of the history of the South.
Apple's CEO Tim Cook tweeted a statement calling for "...eradicating racism & removing the symbols & words that feed it." Cook's statement has resonated across the Internet and has inspired some to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from apps and games in Apple's app store.
Zac Hall, a writer for 9to5Mac, has suggested that Apple begin removing Confederate flag icons and artwork from the app store:
...a quick search on the App Store for ‘Confederate’ reveals iconography and artwork that displays exactly the symbol that Tim Cook spoke against on Sunday. One app, a game called Redneck Shooting Range, displays the flag behind a rifle scope. Another app, Southern Pride Themes, promotes the Confederate flag as an iPhone wallpaper.
I don’t believe Apple should censor historical content or remove informational material from iTunes or the App Store, but if a user wants to use the Confederate flag as a wallpaper, let them rely on an online image search and not an App Store app for creating that experience.
Apple controls the experience that customers have in its App Store in many controversial ways. Removing content that celebrates the Confederate flag should not be viewed as such.
And while it’s a shame it has taken a tragic shooting in South Carolina to make this a national conversation, I’m moved by the number of politicians, companies, and communities recognizing the Confederate flag as a symbol that invokes pain for many. I hope Apple will move as quickly to support this boycott as it did to adjust its Apple Music free trial policy on Sunday. With another customers addressing the Confederate flag’s presentation on the App Store, I believe Apple will quickly make the decision to pull these references.
In his column Zac cites two of Apple's guidelines to justify the removal of the Confederate flag. One about personal attacks, and the other religion, culture and ethnicity. And he comes to the conclusion that these two sections of Apple's app store guidelines justify the removal of the flag.
But is he right? Should the Confederate flag be removed from the app store? On the surface it might seem like a simple question, but if we consider it in a deeper way it's actually a very complicated issue.
Apple fans share their thoughts about the Confederate flag
I'll share my own thoughts below, but here's a sample of responses from 9to5Mac readers that underscores just how polarized the issue of the Confederate flag has become among Apple's customers.
Rnc: "Yes, America, wipe out your history…"
Chrisl84: "...lets ban all historical books from iBookstore while we are at it. God forbid anyone reads a history book and sees the flag there. Erasing history makes me feel all fuzzy inside."
0smoothies0o : "Reading and learning about the flag and hanging it proudly are two entirely separate things. God help you. What the people that hang that flag need are a history lesson, because they’re likely uneducated."
Robert: "You can go in the app store every day, download a shooting game that simulates murdering 1000 people. But some ancient flag needs to be censored. OK, but there is a lot of censoring work that Apple could be doing."
Justin: "We should just ban all history books/videos/DVDs/materials that even mention the existence of the South. Look at China’s campaign again 1989 Tiananmen Square now in it’s 35th or so year of making the event illegal to mention! Working out pretty good for them."
Freshpressedguest : "This isn’t anything NEAR drawing comparisons like that. If anything, it’s encouraging LEARNING about history, quite opposite of your silly slippery-slope hyperbole. The Confederate flag has recently become a very overt code for racists to declare their dislike. Many stores are deciding they don’t want to encourage it. It’s their prerogative, just as it’s the prerogative of people to fly the confederate flag if they want. But everyone at this point pretty much knows what it currently means to fly it."
Bpbath: "ISIS hates the symbolism of the American flag. The symbol represents their antithesis to their values, and Sharia law. North Korea, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, extreme Muslim groups, etc., also hate the U.S. flag. Do you support Apple banning the imagery of the American flag to appease their customers who oppose the stars and stripes? Talk about a slippery slope… "
Run a search for the word “nazi” in the App Store and you’ll find more symbolism that, in theory, one could argue for removal in the same light. But this then becomes quite a slippery slope, right?
Akil Ford: "The history of America is not the history of the Confederate. If I remember right, they lost that fight. Speaking as an african american raised in the south I can say without hesitation the flag is flown over every Klan even and every white supremacy event. My personal belief is you fly whatever flag you want on your property, it lets me know exactly where you stand. Wherever a tax dollar is spent that flag has no place. As far as retailers deciding to carry items displaying that particular sign of white supremacy and the right to own slaves, well they are privately owned. Let them make up their own minds. It lets me know where they stand as well."
Aunty Troll: "By pigeon-holing every single person who flies a Confederate flag as racist, you instantly become a parody of the very thing you are complaining about in the first place."
Rogifan: "...if anything Tim Cook should keep his personal politics to himself and stick to the business of running Apple. That would be nice for a change."
As you can tell from this sampling of comments, the issue of the Confederate flag has caused some passionate emotions on both sides of the issue. And that passion shows no signs of letting up as more people join the debate about the Confederate flag and Apple.
The Confederate flag: The difficulties Apple faces in censoring history
One of the biggest problems for Apple and other companies in attempting to remove the Confederate flag as a symbol is that the flag is interwoven with American history. And so the issue of just how far Apple is willing to go in eradicating the flag is the first thing that has to be dealt with when we consider it.
For example, there are many apps and games that deal with the Civil War. The Confederate flag is obviously a part of that period of American history. Is Apple going to remove it from all of those apps and games? How exactly will they do that? By pretending that the flag never existed? To do that would be trying to erase a very well known symbol of the political and military convulsions that shook the country during the Civil War.
And it's not just the app store that is an issue, it's also the iBooks store. As you might imagine, there are tons of books about the Civil War era available for purchase. Some are fiction, while others are historical. But the Confederate flag appears on various book covers and as an image in some books. Is Apple going to go through each of these many books and try to force the publishers to remove the flag?
Apple will probably dismiss the issue of the iBooks store by saying that they don't curate it the way they do the app store. But the fact remains that the Confederate flag will then still appear in digital books being sold by Apple. In effect, the company will plug one hole while allowing another to remain wide open.
My point in bringing all of this up is to underscore just how difficult it would be for Apple or any other company to completely remove the Confederate flag from all of the products it sells. Amazon, Walmart and other companies face the same problem despite claiming that they will remove products that have the Confederate flag on them.
For example, see this video from YouTube of a 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd performance of "Freebird." You can see a very large Confederate flag in the background of the band. How exactly is Google going to deal with this? Is it going to edit the video to remove the flag? Or will it just remove the video of Skynrd's performance altogether?
The Confederate flag is woven into the fabric of American society
And it's not just electronic imagery in ebooks or apps that appear in Apple's stores, the Confederate flag has a much broader presence than that in America. The Atlantic has an interesting look at the cultural phenomenon of the Confederate flag in America:
Which is all to say that the most prominent flag of the Confederacy has become infused, miasmically, into the culture—a symbol not just of racism and inequality and the banality of evil, but also of a complex tangle of ideas that are, in the end, extremely and essentially American: freedom, rebellion, courage, cowardice, capitulation, camaraderie. We can call the flag “a flag,” for convenience’s sake; what it is more specifically, though, is a meme. And, as tends to happen with memes, the flag doesn’t merely contain multitudes; it also has a way of multiplying. It metastasizes.
Whatever happens in South Carolina, the question from there is: What next? Not just when it comes to Mississippi and Virginia, and but also when it comes to Lynyrd Skynyrd albums and old episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard and the fact that, as of this writing—and despite the company’s statement of future merchandise-yankings—sales of Confederate flags are trending upward on Amazon? How do you deal with a symbol that means so many different things, to so many different people? How do you “take down” a flag that has ceased to be a flag at all?
Around the time of the Centennial, Coski points out, the flag adopted, in addition to everything else, another strain of symbolism. It came to represent not just the rebel, but also the “good ol’ boy”—the kind of benign strain of Southernness that one might today associate with Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy and Cracker Barrel’s dining establishments. The flag’s historical connection to the Civil War gave way to a broader connection with Southern culture, making the flag, as Coski puts it, “an effective symbol for the fierce independence and individual rebelliousness common to all these types of people.”
It’s in those incremental changes that history’s arc will likely, after this period of productive whiplash, go back to bending. If the Confederate flag is to be “removed,” in any comprehensive way, from American infrastructures if not from American memories, the removal will have to contend not just with the flags that fly over state capitols, or with the images stamped onto government-issued license plates. It will also have to contend with Johnny Knoxville, with Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Tom Petty, with Kanye West—with all the flags and non-flags that, while they are no longer available for purchase at Walmart and Sears, remain available across the Internet.
As you can tell from The Atlantic's article, the Confederate flag is all over the place in America, and trying to get rid of it is probably going to be as successful as trying to get rid of the American flag. Both flags are interwoven with American society and history to the point where it's just about impossible to separate them from America itself.
My own experiences with the Confederate flag
You should know that I'm not from the South, I grew up in the Northeast. So I don't really have a dog in the cultural hunt to eradicate or protect the Confederate flag.
But I can remember watching the Dukes of Hazzard in the 70s when I was growing up, and the flag was displayed prominently on top of the General Lee car. I never associated it with racism or hate, I saw it then as a symbol of the South's culture and history, and the rebellious nature of the Duke boys.
So for me the Confederate flag was never about racist hate, and it bothers me that those sick kinds of people have been somewhat successful in coopting the flag and taking it for their own symbol.
Part of me blames the media for this because it seems that whenever you see the Confederate flag in a news article or television news segment, the journalists involved always focus on the racist angle and not on the broader historical context of the Confederate flag. That may have had a distortional effect in many people's minds about the flag and it has probably made it easier for the racist wackos to coopt the flag for their own evil purposes.
Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard, has a recent column in the NY Times that talks about the importance of context when we consider the Confederate flag:
It is obvious that some racists have appropriated and desecrated the Confederate battle flag for their pathetic causes, but those hateful folks also commonly display the Christian cross and the American flag. Do those symbols also inspire racism?
Perceptions of the flag depend upon context. At a national cemetery or national battlefield it is seen in the historical context of the American Civil War. At popular re-enactments of that war’s events, or in films like “Gettysburg” or “Gone With the Wind”, it is seen in a theatrical context. In the television series “The Dukes of Hazzard” the flag on top of Duke boys car has been seen as a symbol of a non-racist Southern spirit by millions of viewers internationally.
To those 70 million of us whose ancestors fought for the South, it is a symbol of family members who fought for what they thought was right in their time, and whose valor became legendary in military history. This is not nostalgia. It is our legacy. The current attacks on that legacy, 150 years after the event, are to us an insult that mends no fences nor builds any bridges.
We of Confederate ancestry would love to sit at Dr. King’s table of brotherhood with those who wish to demonize and marginalize us. That conversation is long overdue.
Should Apple remove the American flag from books and apps?
One of the other things that bothers me about the efforts to eradicate the Confederate flag is that most media reports about it don't mention the association of racism and the American flag. Yes, as Ben Jones noted in his column for the NY Times, the American flag itself has also been carried by racist groups like the KKK and others, and used as a symbol of race hate at various time in history.
And yet we do not hear anyone calling for the removal or replacement of the flag of these United States. And this seems a bit inconsistent and more than a little hypocritical to me. Is Apple going to try to remove the American flag from the app store and from the books in the iBooks store? Somehow I doubt that the company will attempt to do that.
And the American flag has a lesson for all of us because it teaches us that any important symbol can be used for dastardly purposes by evil people at times. But they should not be allowed to solely define the context of how such a symbol is used. And I think that the same thing applies to the Confederate flag.
It's time to take the Confederate flag back from the racists
Frankly, I think it's quite dangerous to allow racist nutcases to coopt the Confederate flag and take it for their own. By allowing them to do that, those of us who believe in equality for all cede an important historical symbol that will be hard to recover later on.
I prefer the approach of refocusing the Confederate flag on Southern heritage and culture by adding "Heritage Not Hate" and other phrases that separate the flag from any kind of racist ideology. It's fairer for those from the South that have direct family ties to soldiers that died in the Civil War, and it helps prevent today's racists from being able to use the flag as a symbol of hate.
Here's an example of the Confederate flag with the Heritage Not Hate phrase added to it:
As you can see from the screenshot, the Confederate flag is put into a different context that underscores the heritage aspect and neutralizes any kind of racist interpretation. To me that makes a lot more sense than trying to eradicate it altogether, which is just about impossible anyway in the age of the Internet.
Will Apple remove the Confederate flag from books and apps?
Tim Cook's statement aside, it remains to be seen what Apple will do about the Confederate flag in the app store. Nor is it clear if the company will make any effort to remove the flag from books and book covers in the iBooks store.
So we're going to have to wait and see what Apple does, but I don't envy whoever has to make the decision about trying to remove the Confederate flag from Apple's digital products. Regardless of what the company does, some of its customers are bound to be unhappy with it.
And I think, in the end, that it will prove a mostly fruitless quest since it is simply impossible to erase the Confederate flag from American history and society altogether.
Update: Apple has begun removing apps with the Confederate flag from the app store.
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